The Servants

Mike Grist Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

This is more like it. After traisping through the self-indulgent waffle-house that was The Lonely Dead, I felt ready to give up on Michael Marshall Smith, but The Servants proves he’s still got it. He IS able to follow a storyline with some rigor. He IS able to write in a non-glib/smug style. He STILL writes with occasional haunting beauty. Well done that man.

That said, I`ve got some pretty hefty reservations to lodge.

The Story

The story is very simple. In some ways it bears a sharp resemblance to Coraline by Neil Gaiman (published 2004). The Servants (which is a terribly bland name) came out in 2007, and is the story of a lonely boy who was has moved with his mom and her new husband to Brighton. It must be the summer holidays because he spends most of every day entertaining himself learning to skateboard. His home life seems not too bad, but he is of course dissatisfied with this change in the course of his life.

He wants his dad back, he wants his mom to himself, and we spend a fair amount of time thinking about this in his head. Contrary to what you might expect though, this doesn`t come off as typical Smith whiney-ness. I felt sympathetic to the boy. It sucks for him. His voice felt real and I cared about him.

Then he discovers a secret world (the old servant`s quarters) underneath their house. He gets pulled in, the world gets disordered, and ultimately he must bring that world into order to exercise any kind of order in his life above stairs.

Coraline, much?

I do think Smith is channeling Gaiman here. The spare writing style, the strict adhesion to one voice and one story, along with the general story arc itself. And on the whole it’s a good thing. It’s a much more palatable style than his usual cocky-annoying protagonists. It’s earnest, not sarcastic, and you can relax into it.

I wonder what Neil Gaiman would think of it all. Probably he`d be flattered. As for me- I`m quite happy to read more books in the style of Neil Gaiman. He`s just good.

Hefty Reservations **SPOILERS**

And then the problems. As with most Smith books, these come at the end. They are not so large, but they did relegate the book. The whole of it to that point had built up a lot of capital, which it then squandered, in two ways.

1. Smith, like Shyamalan, likes to exposit.

He did it in Straw Men. He did it in One of Us. He ends his books with so many loose ends that he feels the need to tie them up somehow, in expository dumps that SHOULD have been worked more thoroughly into the story as a whole.

One of Us was the worst for this. After the book is finished there is a several page essay about the phenomena we see in the book- aliens, bigfoot, faeries, men in black, etc… It made sense. It was even interesting! But it clearly should have been IN the book. not addended clumsily.

Likewise with the Servants. In one revelatory paragraph right before the end, our protagonist (Mark) abruptly comes to understand that his dad left his mom because she had cancer, that his dad was seeing another woman and had left his mom for her, that her mom had remarried an old university boyfriend who had always loved her, and that his mom has been acting weird because she`s afraid of dying.

Phew. In one paragraph. I`m not against these moments being revelatory, but the way they were spoon-fed to us just felt lazy. Integrate, MMS! Build them in. Then you can hammer us with them all you want at the end. But don`t just lump them on us almost out of nowhere. Don`t explain them to us in one go, make us aware of them over time, let us reach our own revelations.

2. The ending doesn`t make sense.

This is another typical MMS problem. Look at Spares. What the heck was going on in the whole second half of that book? He`s wandering through some dream Vietnam where the leaves whisper and, uh, what? I have no memory of it. I remember the set-up, clones etc.., but what happened?

It got lost.

This story doesn`t get so nearly lost, but it does jump up and down on a square peg to force it into a round hole.

Look at Coraline. There`s the Other Mother, who is really a big spider that wants to blind Coraline and eat her. But there`s also- introduced early on, the idea of the magic stone that can find whatever you`re looking for. So when it comes to the crunch, we already know what Coraline must do to win- she must complete the Other Mother`s challenge using the special tool. Then she can escape.

It makes sense, it`s logical.

With the Servants though, it doesn`t really. It`s implied, but still doesn`t work. Mark goes down into the Servants quarters. There`s an argument between the head butler and housekeeper, who are ghosts. The ghost under-house starts to fall apart. This is obviously supposed to analogize to his mother`s cancer, her body tearing itself apart.

Fine. Good, in fact. But there`s no magic stone. At no point does anybody say anything about either the connection to his mother`s sickness or the way to defeat it down here.And there has to be that connection, built in early.

So at the end, when Mark head down a final time to the Servant`s quarters, and his step-dad says, completely bizarrely-

“Is there anything you can do?”

I was like- what?

The step-dad has no idea where Mark is going, or what he`s going to do. He knows nothing of any of it. What does he think Mark will do, go invent a cure for cancer? Ridiculous, but easily fixed. Cut it out.

Mark goes down and starts to bring order to the decay under the house. He cleans up. It`s great fun, and well written. A month later his mom is well again.

What? Yes. That easily.

It`s just lazy writing. It`s asking us the reader to make the leaps necessary, that the writer should make. Why does cleaning the cellar have anything to do with his mother`s sickness? Awful, but again easily fixed. Tell us a single ghost story about this house early on, that the ghosts of the servants reflect the state of affairs above ground. Imply once that the reflecting might work both ways.

Hey presto, you`ve done your prep. It`ll work.


3 stars. If the bits I mention above had been implemented, easily 5 stars. Apart from them, it`s really very good.

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