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Literature: Incompetence

Bad is the new good.

Incompetence is a Black Comedy novel by Rob Grant (of Red Dwarf fame).

Set Twenty Minutes into the Future, it takes place in The United States Of Europe, where political correctness has reached its logical conclusion, and laws have been passed that forbid the discrimination of people based on race, class, gender, creed or competence. Thus, a society has been born where everyone is bad at their job because employers aren't allowed to use someone's actual ability to do the job as a reason to hire/fire someone. Most shoes are made of vegetable matter, a hotel room will only have furniture in it if you're lucky (and be completely non-existent if you're not), and signposts rarely agree with each other, let alone point the correct way. As added joke, one can track how many originally absurd rules from book were actually realised by European Union between publishing and present.

The main character is a detective working for an un-named secret organisation who uses a variety of pseudonyms, most commonly "Harry Salt". Unlike most people, Salt is actually intelligent and competent at his job, but has grown to loathe it due to being the Only Sane Man. His fellow agent and mentor "Klingferm" has been murdered, and Salt must track down his killer. Unfortunately, the world he lives in only seeks to hamper his efforts rather than help him in any way.


Incompetence contains examples of:

  • For Inconvenience, Press "1": Every time Harry attempts to use the phone system in the Belize Hotel in Rome, he winds up being transferred to the restaurant. Including whenever the restaurant manager attempts to transfer him elsewhere.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: Europol, PCID (Police Corruption Investigation Division) and Harry's unnamed agency.
  • I Ate What?: Subverted. Upon learning that the broth he was given earlier was made of office workers, Harry just dryly notes that "they're actually good for something".
  • I Have Many Names: Harry has several identities. Harry Salt is his core identity, which he avoids using in investigations. Throughout the book, he uses Harry Pepper, Harry Tequila and Cardew Vascular, though he implies using the name Simon Simons at some point.
  • Impersonating an Officer: Harry's IDs are basically this. They're all fully traceable and have legitimate service records. His Harry Pepper ID gets deactivated without his prior knowledge and it gets him arrested by Europol.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: 'Mission Man Broth.
  • Incompetence, Inc.: The whole of Europe has become this after Political Correctness Gone Mad legislation. In particular, companies are prohibited from discriminating based on competence, so they aren't able to use a potential employee's ability to actually do the job as a hiring criteria.
  • Internal Affairs: PCID is this. Harry uses a PCID badge to get the files on the Fabrizi case.
  • Iron Butt Monkey: Harry is an example of one as a protagonist. The amount of injuries he sustains over the course of the book leave him with some nasty scars.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: When Zuccho catches up with Harry in Paris, he pulls his gun on him and pulls the trigger. Turns out, he forgot to reload after the previous day's rant.
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Basically, anybody who is any good at their job goes nowhere, while stupid, insane people are Kicked Upstairs. Harry wonders how Salieri manages to make it up to Sergeant, but notes that he won't go any higher.
  • Little Useless Gun: Wolfie's Derringer. Harry reckons it's only good for an eye shot at point blank range. Given Wolfie's sadistic nature, that's probably what he did use it for.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Doctor Rutter, whose hobbies include taking the faces of dead people and transplanting them to the buttocks of other people.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Gina. She suffers from a mental condition known as "Sexually Inappropriate Response", which causes her to flirt with guests at the hotel where she works as a guest liaison. Harry tells her she looks better in his shirt than he does.
  • Mythology Gag: Harry states that Zuccho makes Captain Bligh look like a management genius. Oslo used the same insult on Captain Gwent in Colony.
  • Never Found the Body: Harry shoots Klingferm in the head, but he seems to survive it, despite a large chunk of his brain being splattered against the wall. He manages to escape, though Zuccho is sure that he's in no fit state to make any plans.
  • No Kill Like Overkill: The German police in the Euronews chapter. Also Superintendant Debary of the Food Crimes squad, who goes to restaurant inspections armed to the teeth.
  • No Name Given: Harry has abandoned his real name more than a decade ago and adopted Harry Salt as his "core identity" (ie. the name he mostly goes by). However, he tries to avoid using the Salt identity as much as he can when away, using Harry Pepper (which Zuccho knows him best as, referring to him as Pepperpot), Harry Tequila and Cardew Vascular (though he implies that Simon Simons is another name he's used before).
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Zuccho may possibly be this, as he is able to track Harry to Paris and Vienna. Klingferm uses this (while disguised) against Harry as he tries to hire a car to get out of Paris. Harry himself uses this to get on board a plane to Paris from Rome.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The station master.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Salt, Klingferm.
    • Also Sergeant Salieri. Harry notes that because he is the one smart cop in all of Italy, his promotion prospects are zero.
  • No OSHA Compliance: Since Disneyland Austria was shut down, it's been left abandoned until the final confrontation between Harry and "Johnny Appleseed" aka Dick Klingferm. The main attraction is rigged to collapse at a certain point and it's Klingferm's intention to use it to kill Harry.
  • Police Are Useless: And damn near everyone else.
  • Political Correctness Gone Mad: Article 13199 of the Pan-European constitution states that no person may be excluded from any employment on the grounds of age, race, creed or incompetence. This leads to people holding jobs that they are entirely unsuitable for, such as airline pilots with vertigo, police officers who are either Too Dumb to Live or fall under the Rabid Cop category and an old man holding a job as a Playboy Bunny.
  • Rabid Cop:
    • Captain Zuccho, who's trigger happy.
    • Also, the German police in the Euronews chapter. They go a little overboard in their methods of apprehending a dead man.
    • Superintendant Debary, who goes to restaurant inspections with a SWAT team in tow.
  • Raging Stiffie: Lupo, the waiter on the train, has priapism. He actually manages to clock Harry on the back of his head with his erection. Harry himself gets one when he meets Gina and notes that he might fall over dead should he try to stand up.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Zuccho has a nasty habit of opening fire when he's been told to calm down.
  • She's Got Legs: Gina.
  • Shock and Awe: One of Wolfie's favourite weapons is a police stun stick with the safety stripped out. Harry uses it to great effect in the book's climax.
  • Shout-Out: Harry Salt and Harry Tequila are names Harry chooses when drinking Tequila with Klingferm after he finishes his training. Klingferm advises him not to pick the name Harry Lime. Doubles as Foreshadowing, as Klingferm is really the Big Bad who fakes his own death.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Captain Zuccho.
  • Super Identikit: Averted. Harry gets identikitted and the image is shown on Euronews. Luckily, it looks more like Dr Zaius than Harry.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Superindendant Debary, who slept with all three daughters of a restaurant owner separately and all together (he even has written consent). The fact that he was giving said restaurant a clean bill of health had nothing to do with it.
  • The Dragon: Wolfie.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: The setting of the story.
  • Ultimate Job Security: The whole point of Article 13199. Nobody can be fired for being bad at their job. Gina seems to be the only one whose job is in danger because she's a little too good at her job.
  • Unit Confusion: Doctor Rutter's descriptions of the corpses has them all a metre taller than the average human being. This can be handwaved as Rutter being insane, as he's more concerned with transplanting faces to buttocks than doing any work.
  • United Europe
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: The entire dinner party incident is an extended version, and also features a Vomit Chain Reaction.
  • With This Herring
  • Worst Aid: Harry fakes a heart attack to try and get a free upgrade to business class on a flight. Unfortunately, the stewards decide to administer "CPU" to him, which involves choking him with his own tie, then beating on his chest several times, winding him. It's only by sheer fluke that Harry comes out of it alive.
  • Writer on Board: can come across as an anti-EU screed at times.
  • You Do Not Have to Say Anything: Spoofed when the caution takes up an entire chapter and basically amounts to "anything you say (or don't say) means you're both guilty and fully understand your rights". There is also a simplified version, for suspects who don't understand the full version:
    "You don't have to say anything, but if you don't, bad things will happen to you. You can ask for a lawyer, but if you do, bad things will happen to you. Do you understand, or shall I read the full version again?"

I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About AlanComic LiteratureInsane City
IncarceronLiterature of the 2000sInfinity Beach

alternative title(s): Incompetence
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