Novel of the week

Vienna Blood

Adrian Mathews <em>Jonathan Cape, 312pp, £10</em>

Imagine a world in which an ageing Arnold Schwarzenegger is the US president, Europe is terrorised by neo-fascists, information technology has spawned Big Brother's bigger brother and state-sponsored scientists push back the boundaries of genetic engineering. Short of Bernard Manning becoming Britain's ambassador to the UN, this is about as dystopian as fictional futuristic dystopias can get. It is the world envisaged by Adrian Mathews in his disconcerting and ambitious new book.

A translator and lecturer in English literature at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris, Mathews unashamedly eschews narrow English parochialism in favour of an international novel of ideas. The result is a political thriller with a scientific twist. If you locked Aldous Huxley, John le Carre and Richard Dawkins in a room with a word processor, this is the sort of yarn they might spin.

Set in Vienna in 2026, the story is narrated by Sharkey, a stereotypical maverick reporter at the Wiener Tageszeitung. Following the death of Leo, a casual acquaintance, Sharkey is persuaded by the man's widow to apply his powers of journalistic investigation to a seemingly accidental hit-and-run. Naturally, it turns out to have been murder, and soon Sharkey has fallen for the beautiful widow, Petra (an attraction complicated by her being heavily pregnant). More satirical columnist than reporter, Sharkey nevertheless proves remarkably adept at sniffing out the trail of clues leading to Leo's demise. The task is a complex one. When he's not tapping his sources at police HQ, wheedling information out of the dead man's associates or poring over top-secret material culled by a research assistant at the newspaper, Sharkey is hacking into computer systems like a cyber-nerd on a mission. It isn't long before the people who killed Leo are gunning for him, too. The plot, in the main, is well crafted, although the protagonist is aided at crucial moments by one or two credulity-straining coincidences.

More damaging is the weak characterisation. Excessive physical description combines with shallow psychological insight to cast several characters, at times Sharkey included, in the role of clothes-horses over which the fabric of the plot is draped. This, in turn, dissipates the tension as he closes in on the truth behind the murder. It is no use setting your hero off on a perilous quest if the reader is insufficiently interested in him to care whether he succeeds or fails.

All of which is a pity, because the novel's themes and ideas deserve better. The central premise is an ingenious one, and the scientific and medical background is rigorously researched and cleverly transposed to a near-future of frightening plausibility - a world where people's daily lives are slotted into the disk-drive of technology, where moral codes are scrambled by the cipher of virtual politics, where the human condition is simplified to a DNA sequence. The crisis on which the book turns is one of identity: personal, racial, national. As for the fictional Vienna of three decades hence, the atmosphere of the place is so pungent you can almost taste it.

If Vienna Blood warrants praise for its ambition, this is also, paradoxically, its undoing. The author reminds me of someone trying to keep too many plates spinning at the top of tall poles - dashing back and forth across the stage, bewildering himself and the audience alike. The consequence is confusion as to the point of focus. Specifically, the subplot of Sharkey's inquiries into an Austrian neo-fascist group never quite gels with the main body of the narrative. More generally, so much space is required to explain the novel's scientific and political context that the dramatic momentum is repeatedly disrupted, a serious flaw for a thriller, no matter how substantial its literary intentions. Ultimately, the book is a cerebral rather than emotional experience for the reader, as I suspect it was for the author.

Martyn Bedford's third novel, "The Houdini Girl", is published by Viking