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Literature / Incompetence

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Bad is the new good.

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

Set 20 Minutes into the Future, it takes place in The United States of Europe, where Political Overcorrectness has reached Dystopian Edict levels, 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 an added joke, one can track how many originally absurd rules from this 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 provides examples of:

  • Almighty Janitor: Jonhan, the world's leading toxicologist, has been stuck as a research assistant for forty-two years due to the absurd promotion system.
  • Angrish: Captain Zuccho.
  • Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: The ticket salesman at the airport in Rome has this badly. Harry is unable to get a ticket from him, forcing him to use other means to get on a flight.
  • Author Avatar: Harry comes across as this for Grant to rant out at such things as seating on trains. The book is all the better for it though.
  • Berserk Button: Asking Zuccho to calm down will only result in gunplay.
  • Blade Enthusiast: Wolfie carries a stiletto knife as one of his three weapons. Harry notes that it's a good choice of knife for a professional, stating that Rambo-style knives are Awesome, but Impractical compared to the Simple, yet Awesome nature of a stiletto.
  • Blatant Lies: The Rabid Cop claiming the man they attempted to blow up with a rocket launcher was brandishing a machine gun and shouting threats. He was actually already dead.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: In-universe example with the manual for the central heating in Harry's flat.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Subverted. Harry shoots Klingferm in the head, but he appears to survive it. Mostly.
  • Broken Pedestal: Klingferm trained Harry in and was one of his contacts. Turns out he's an American agent out to subvert European interests.
  • Butt-Monkey:
    • Papa, who was declared legally dead by the government and couldn't get it rectified.
    • Legal assistant Hinton, who is kept locked up for three years by the police due to having been fired while he was visiting the jail. He is kept from leaving because his permit to be there is invalid and denied due process because he was never charged with a crime.
    • And then of course there's Harry himself, an Iron Butt Monkey extreme.
  • Chalk Outline: At the scene of a nasty accident, Harry sees a cop drawing chalk outlines around everything, including an eyeball that had got thrown from the wreckage. He gives it a lampshade.
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: Well, CIA Evil, Europol Good... Klingferm is a CIA agent trying to subvert Europe. Europol is basically the Transatlantic Equivalent to the FBI and, though we only see one agent, he's essentially not a bad guy and is only doing his job.
  • *Click* Hello: Harry gets on the wrong end of a shotgun while searching through garbage.
  • Closest Thing We Got: During the Fabrizzi poisoning, as the arriving medical personal kept slipping on the vomit and injuring themselves, there was an attempt to get one of the victims, an actor who played a doctor on TV to help that ended in abject failure.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Any conversation with Captain Zuccho.
  • Crapsack World: In a world where being incapable of actually doing your job will not disqualify you from it, nothing works properly. Police Are Useless, public services are full of Obstructive Bureaucrats and taking a flight won't even get you to your intended destination without some mishap occurring.
  • Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon:
    • Harry threatens to strangle the mechanic with bubble wrap.
    • Shortly afterwards, he threatens to castrate the Obstructive Bureaucrat stationmaster with his bare hands and then whip him with the severed organ.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Harry Salt.
  • The Dilbert Principle: Incompetent workers are often promoted quickly, whereas those who know what they're doing suffer from Limited Advancement Opportunities. This is why Zuccho has made it all the way up to Captain and Salieri is a Sergeant. Harry is actually amazed that Salieri made it as far as Sergeant, but notes that he won't go any further.
  • The Dragon: Wolfie is Klingferm's chief enforcer.
  • Eagleland: Klingferm.
  • Evil Plan: The society-hobbling Political Overcorrectness is encouraged by the American intelligence services, who believe that a cohesive Europe would be a serious rival to the USA's global power.
  • Firing One-Handed: Averted. The only time Harry gets a gun, he needs both hands to keep his aim steady. Although, the implication is that said gun is a Hand Cannon.
  • 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.
  • Hidden Depths: Captain Zuccho might be a Rabid Cop with a Hair-Trigger Temper, but he turns out to be capable of tracking Harry all across Europe and is the one person who doesn't believe Harry's cover identity.
  • I Ate WHAT?!: Subverted. Upon learning that the broth he was given earlier was made of European Farming Commission 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.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: 'Mission Man Broth.
  • 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.
  • Incompetence, Inc.: The whole of Europe has become this after Political Overcorrectness 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.
  • Inspector Javert: Zuccho is suspicious of Harry from the getgo and ends up tracking him across Europe. He ends up saving Harry from Klingferm's rollercoaster "accident" where he finally believes him (though not without putting a bullet in him first).
  • 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.
  • Kent Brockman News: In the Euronews chapter, the helicopter reporter utterly freaks out when the gunplay starts and complains that he's a sports reporter supposed to be covering a match. The anchor ends the broadcast by noting that if the dead French Interior Minister who had been occupying Harry's rental car had been on drugs, then he would rot in hell. Although the anchor was reading a speech from the French government, and mostly subverts this trope, along with the reporter interviewing the Cops.
  • 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. Or so he says—Harry notes that Zuccho is still keeping a good eye on his surroundings.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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: There are a decent amount of them (to different degrees, and in different way) but they're widely scattered, and vastly outnumbered by the incompetent ones.
    • Salt and Klingferm are the biggest examples, being highly competent agents aware of how bad things are everywhere.
    • Also Sergeant Salieri. Harry notes that because he is the one smart cop in all of Italy, his promotion prospects are zero.
    • The stewardess Harry uses Obfuscating Stupidity on seems fairly professional and ok at her job, causing Harry to resort to those methods to get past her and driving her crazy.
    • The main Euronews reporter and anchor covering the death of the French Minister of the Interior seem to have a fairly accurate grasp of the German cops' Blatant Lies and do a good job conveying this to the audience.
    • While Gina handles her job in an over-sexed way, she's one of the only people we meet who's incompetent in some way who realizes her incompetence and strives to do better.
    • Almighty Janitor Johnan serves as this for the pathology field.
    • According to the Big Bad most of the poisoning victims were competent individuals, being some of Europe’s best and brightest, although it’s more of an Informed Attribute.
  • Pet the Dog: Harry gets several moments showing that he deserves the audience's sympathy, such as bu giving one of his fake IDs to a man declared legally dead to help him get a fresh start, or advising a fellow prisoner locked up over a technicality on how to get out.
  • Playboy Bunny: Parodied. Twinkle is a bunny girl at the Plaything Club in Vienna despite being an old man.
  • Police Are Useless: And damn near everyone else. Most of the cops that appear are either Too Dumb to Live or Rabid Cops.
  • Police Brutality: Police in the United States Of Europe have a tendency to be overzealous in their apprehension of criminals. Superintendent Debary is in charge of restaurant health inspections, but he tends to go to them with a SWAT team in tow, while German police fire attempt to use a rocket launcher to disable a noncompliant vehicle with a dead man at the wheel.
  • Political Overcorrectness: 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 for which they are entirely unsuitable, 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.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: While the Hotel manager in Rome is still fairly dim, after Harry gives him a taste of his own medicine by having him try to call various building services only for all of the calls to go to a restaurant employee who can’t redirect calls (which Harry suffered through a lot) he seems to understand Harry’s frustration and gives him a new room.
  • Rhetorical Question Blunder: When arriving at a food police headquarters, Harry jokingly asks a cop having his lunch if he’s about to eat evidence. Even after Harry has explained he was joking four or five times the guy is too freaked out at the idea to eat his lunch, becoming so convinced that it is some sort of criminal evidence that he arrests the sandwich maker he got it from, even though he has no clue what he’s arresting him for (and also accidentally handcuffs himself instead of the sandwich guy, and loses the key). Harry predicts that he’ll be commissioner of police by sunset.
  • Running Gag: Harry is completely unable to hold onto a pair of shoes for very long. Most of the shoes he does get hold of tend to be made of various vegetable matter and, therefore, fall apart whenever someone so much as breathes on them.
  • 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 has a tendency to use swear words as punctuation.
  • 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.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: The German police in the Euronews chapter. In attempting to stop the French Interior Minister, they fire a ridiculous amount of ammunition at the car before whipping out a rocket launcher. Bear in mind, the man in question was already dead before the police even began to pursue him. Also Superintendant Debary of the Food Crimes squad, who goes to restaurant inspections armed to the teeth.
  • 20 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: Europe has become a federal country as the United States Of Europe.
  • Vomiting Cop: Harry spots a cop who looks a bit green around the gills on his way to see Doctor Rutter and notes that while this has never happened to him personally, he's seen plenty of coroners try and invoke this reaction. Of course, given that Rutter takes the faces from cadavers and transplants them to the buttocks of other cadavers, it's understandable why someone would be queasy in his presence.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: The entire dinner party incident is an extended version, and also features a Vomit Chain Reaction.
  • Worst Aid: Harry fakes a heart attack to try to 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?"
  • You're Insane!: Harry tells Doctor Rutter this once he's finished talking about his hobby of swapping different body parts around on cadavers. Rutter notes that his own wife told him the same thing, though not because what he's doing is unethical, but because she thinks his upcoming plan to swap buttocks around will be a technical nightmare.