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Literature / The Jennifer Morgue

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The Jennifer Morgue is the second novel in The Laundry Files by Charles Stross. The book also includes the Laundry short-story "Plimpf".

Bob Howard is the newest field agent for The Laundry, a top-secret government organization devoted to keeping the UK safe from magical threats, and preventing the public from learning that magic is real. With a background in IT, Bob is very much aware that working for a secret government agency—even one as unusual as The Laundry—is not as exciting as fiction might make you think. It's still a hidebound, bureaucratic government agency with endless paperwork.

His latest assignment, however, is starting to take some unusual turns. First, he's asked to meet with a foreign agent, Ramona Random, who turns out to be a serious Femme Fatale—and far more dangerous than she first appears. Next, he's sent to a beautiful Caribbean island to investigate a billionaire who lives on a former warship converted into a yacht—and who may be planning to take over the world.

It's all beginning to feel like something straight out of a James Bond film.

Tropes in this book:

  • Action Girl:
    • Ramona Random, Bob's liason with the Black Chamber (the US's far-more-brutal and ruthless equivalent of The Laundry) is a Femme Fatale who has no hesitation to kill. Which is unsurprising, since she's possessed by an extra-dimensional sex-demon.
    • Dominique "Mo" O'Brien who started off as a Damsel in Distress in The Atrocity Archives, but in now turns out to have been Bond in the destiny trap and saves the day with her demon-killing violin.
  • The Alleged Car: James Bond gets an Aston-Martin; Bob gets a Smart car. It develops shades of Cool Car later in the book, as its Bond-esque gadgets actually come in handy.
  • Batman Gambit: The villain attempts this. His plan depends on the Laundry and the Black Chamber trying to stop him. Needless to say, it doesn't work out.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Bob and Ramona are destiny-entangled and it turns out that the villain trapped him in a James Bond destiny trap.
  • The Bermuda Triangle: The Triangle is one of several sites heavily colonized by the Deep Ones, a species of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens that live on the ocean floor. The disappearances of ships in the region involve the weaponization of gas deposits - when released, they can cause the water under a ship to rush out momentarily, causing the keel to sink into the void just as the water starts rushing back in. The Deep Ones do this whenever a ship gets too close to finding out about them.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Mo and Alan Barnes' team arrive unexpectedly at the last moment. The whole plan depended on Mo, not Bob, actually playing the role of James Bond in the destiny trap set up by the villain.
  • Blood Bath: The book references the original legend with Bathory PaleGrace (TM), a makeup that carries a youth-projecting glamour in every jar. As the company's founder says, stem cell research means they're down to about 14 parts per million virgin blood in every jar... but there's no other way to get the endorphins that come with stress.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Billington was already a Blofeldian figure (Corrupt Corporate Executive, planning a scheme to Take Over the World, using a yacht converted from a warship), so casting a "destiny trap" to create a James Bond-like figure is risky at the very least. It's justified, partly because Billington thought he could turn it off at any time and partly because he was insane and possessed. It's later pointed out that if Billington had simply approached the Black Chamber with his salvage scheme he would have gotten away with it.
  • Captured Super-Entity: The Black Chamber likes doing this with its operatives. Two of the characters have had soul-eating abominations bound to them and are then in turn wrapped up in a few layers of powerful control magics to keep them on a short leash.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: A memorable example of how one can combine the Cluster F-Bomb with a Narrative Profanity Filter, two tropes you wouldn't think you could mix. (Of course, given Bob's profession, he may be referring to Black Speech.)
    Bob Howard: I start swearing. Not my usual "shit-fuck-piss-cunt-bugger" litany, but really rude words.
  • Cool Boat: Billington, the Blofeldian supervillain, owns not one but three. Mabuse, a denavalized ex-Indian Navy Krivak III-class frigate, is his yacht. The ex-Glomar Explorer is the 66,000-ton salvage ship he's bought to enact his plan. And the Hopper only ever puts in an offscreen appearance, but it's mentioned as a old liner that's wired up with enough satellite bandwidth to serve as the nerve center of his business/surveillance operation.
  • Cool Car: Subverted in The Jennifer Morgue, where Bob is stuck with a Smart car. He's not very happy about this, mainly because he has to drive down the Autobahn to a conference and keeps getting blitzed by Audis. On the other hand, once Pinky and Brains jam the obligatory load of James Bond-esque gadgets in it, it becomes a lot cooler. But at the end of the day, for all its gadgetry, it's still just a Smart Fortwo.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Billington. This is quite logical since the book is an homage to the James Bond books, where the Big Bad is usually a megalomaniac Corrupt Corporate Executive.
  • Cute Monster Girl: Ramona Random, a Deep One hybrid who's knock-out gorgeous even after she drops her glamour. It's mentioned in the story that Deep One hybrids generally tend to be very attractive, as this aids in achieving their design purpose of serving as effective ambassadors to the surface world.
  • Deus Sex Machina: Ramona Random, a Black Chamber agent, has a succubus bound to her. If she doesn't have sex, it eats her mind. If she does have sex, it kills the partner instead. She's employed as an assassin, naturally.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: The Big Bad is evil media tycoon Billington, the Blofeld-alike, right? Nope, it's his white Persian cat, Fluffy. Okay, it's actually a Cthonian war god possessing Fluffy.
  • Ejection Seat: Discussed. The book goes into some detail as to why an ejection seat in a car is an insanely bad idea; when Bob Howard presses the eject button on his Cool Car, the entire car ejects, which is only slightly less so. It's made clear that only time you should press the button is if not pressing it is definitely going to kill you. The explanation also deflates the idea of the "easy eject"; Bob describes how, due to the G-forces involved, the pilot is likely looking at weeks in traction at best.
  • Freakiness Shame: When half-Deep One assassin Ramona Random drops the illusion protecting her true, fishy appearance, she expects protagonist Bob Howard to be repelled. He's anything but. (From a practical point of view, this is mainly because she's part of a subspecies specifically engineered not to be repulsive to humans, because the Deep Ones do have an occasional need to interact with them.)
  • Fun with Acronyms: The Mooks keep referencing TLA's IPO. As it turns out, this does not stand for 'Initial Public Offering', but rather, 'Install Planetary Overlord'.
  • Gambit Pileup: Billington, the Black Chamber and the Laundry are all counting on each other's plotting to achieve their own goals.
  • Game Face: Subverted. The protagonist is working with a succubus covered by a level-three glamour that makes her look like a gorgeous woman. Eventually despite her warnings he insists that she reveal her real face—and instead of the hideous demon he expects, it turns out she's a Half-Human Hybrid that he actually finds rather attractive.
  • Genre Blindness: For a pop-culture quoting geek who claims to have seen all the films and books in question before he was 15, Bob takes an awfully long time to realize that the archetype he's labouring under is James Bond. He even gets a cabin where the DVDs are all Bond titles, and still doesn't figure it out. To his credit, he easily figures he's in some kind of thriller, but even after Billington tells him that the archetype in question has been reinforced by millions of viewers over fifty years of film — while they're at dinner— he still doesn't catch on. (Partially this is because the archetype itself is keeping him from realizing, since he's more the (good) Bond girl rather than Bond himself; also, Ramona Random mentions that it's designed to prevent "recursive attacks", i.e. trying to brute-force your way through the geas by taking advantage of the knowledge of James Bond.)
  • Genre Savvy: Billington's second in command, knowing about the geas, knows that the boss will start monologuing and revealing critical information that he, and the Mooks aren't supposed to know, and that a typical action of a Bond villain in that situation is to eliminate the underling. As a result he makes it a point of leaving the room when it looks like that is about to happen.
  • Girl of the Week: The book discusses, lampshades, and generally plays hell with this trope: the opposition is using a Hero-trap geas, meaning that all efforts to oppose him will be funneled into the Theory of Narrative Causality; since he cast himself as the villain, he can only be successfully resisted by a James Bond archetype, which is played by Bob. He is quickly paired up with a female Black Chamber agent, making her a Bond girl. And then the trope is turned completely upside down: it turns out that Angleton was able to successfully end-run the geas by making Bob's girlfriend, Mo, the true Bond-figure in the geas, meaning that Bob is the actual Bond girl, allowing Mo to save the day in a Bond-worthy Big Damn Heroes moment. The narrative also notes that there's almost always two Bond girls, one "light", one "dark", thus making room for the Black Chamber agent in the geas.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Angleton mentions that one of the support vessels for the operation, open for a "direct line of credit", is HMS Vanguard. Considering that the Blofeldian supervillain wants to resurrect an ancient Cthonian war god, having a sub full of ICBMs on standby suddenly looks like a reasonable precaution.
  • Guyliner: The mooks are forced to wear eyeliner by their boss, as it's a necessary component for his magical surveillance system. They are less than enthused, hiding it with Sunglasses at Night because, as one mook puts it, "Cosmetics don't go with G.I. Joe."
  • Hot Skitty-on-Wailord Action: In a nod to Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth", the book brings us human/Deep One hybrids. The deep ones themselves are alien fishmen, but some of the human hybrids can be startlingly attractive (which helps when breeding with humans, of course), and the protagonist muses that he now understands why some people take to solo nude snorkelling off secluded beaches... Reference is made to the rather fishy-looking and ugly residents of Innsmouth from the original story, and they are implied to be a particularly in-bred group, and would look pretty peculiar even in the absence of Deep One genes.
  • Idiot Ball: Weaponized by the Big Bad; the Hero Trap geas forces his opponents to send in a lone-wolf British agent, who then is pushed by the geas into making the sort of mistakes that only make sense within the structure of a James Bond plot. When Bob realizes this, he throws the Ball right back at the bad guys, and takes full advantage of their own Bond Villain Stupidity level mistakes (like leaving an unsecured computer within spitting distance of Her Majesty's Bastard Operator from Hell).
  • Inhumanable Alien Rights: It's a reasonably major plot point that the CIA doesn't consider anyone with demonic ancestry to be legally human.
  • Instrument of Murder: Bob's girlfriend, Mo, carries a Zahn-model violin that she wields like a weapon. In an amusing Shout-Out to Woody Guthrie, the violin has "THIS MACHINE KILLS DEMONS" written on it. The violin itself is a shout out to the Lovecraft short, "The Music of Erich Zahn".
  • Just Between You and Me: Spoofed. The Big Bad (who's deliberately following supervillain tropes) explains his evil plan to the hero via PowerPoint! The Horror!
  • Kiss of Death: Ramona Random, the hero's liason with the American "Black Chamber" has a soul-eating daemon bound to her. The means of operation is more of a bite than a kiss, however.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: The Hero Trap induces Bond Villain Stupidity on the villains holding Bob captive. They lock him in a stateroom in the yacht of the Big Bad, and while they do remove the obvious computer from its desk, they forget to check the television - which is an unsecured, network-capable Windows Media PC. And when Robert Oliver Francis Howard is not in the field, he's essentially the official Bastard Operator from Hell for Her Majesty's occult secret service...
  • Mate or Die: The book has Ramona Random, an assassin from the CIA's occult equivalent with a succubus bound to her soul. The thing is regularly "fed" by consuming the souls of people Ramona has sex with...and when it gets hungry and Ramona's mark dies of a heart attack before climaxing, she's in a rough spot, as "if it doesn't get the little death, it'll go straight for the big one."
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: Go to a conference for occult intelligence across the EU → get roped into a James Bond plot and have to stop a mad billionaire from resurrecting an ancient cyborg war god.
  • The Name Is Bond, James Bond: Parodied in the cover text—appropriately enough, given the number of Bond Shout Outs in the book:
    "The name is Howard. Bob Howard. Please don't hurt me..."
  • Neuro-Vault: Bob Howard has the briefing for the next stage of his mission implanted this way. Unfortunately the circumstances change halfway through the book, so thanks to this trope Bob is forced to endure an Info Dump that's no longer relevant.
  • No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Dine: The book has the secret agent protagonist captured by the evil billionaire who's trying to resurrect a shoggoth. The next morning, he and his lovely CIA agent contact are treated to breakfast by the billionaire and his wife. Justified as the billionaire has invoked the tropes of James Bond movies as a geas. He plans to keep the agent locked in the trope of the solitary agent going it alone against the megalomaniac until no one else can possibly intervene, at which point he breaks the geas, kills the agent, and takes over the world before anyone can stop him.
  • Out with a Bang: Ramona Random is a CIA agent with a succubus bound to her soul who usually kills by these means. It leads to a nasty predicament where one of her targets has a heart attack during sex, and she needs the little death to go with the big one or the awakened succubus will eat her soul as well.
  • Plot Tailored to the Party: The story, in keeping with the James Bond theme, features the typical bunch of random gadgets. Ramona also mumbles about this in a conversation with Bob, much to his confusion. Doubly subverted—near the end of the story, Bob muses that he ended up using all the gadgets except for an unmodified Zippo lighter that "he's going to keep". It then ends up playing an essential role in the epilogue.
  • Real Dreams are Weirder: Bob can tell his dream is really weird as it follows a linear structure (seeing through the eyes of Ramona Random via 'destiny entanglement") instead of featuring camel-headed spider gods trying to get him to sign a Microsoft User Agreement.
  • Right-Hand Cat: Billingford has a classic Right-Hand Cat as part of his Bond-based destiny trap, which eventually turns out to be posessed by the Eldritch Abomination he's working for.
  • Sarcastic Confession: The Blofeldian supervillain jokingly claims that his plans for world domination are all for Fluffy's sake. "Fluffy" is the vessel for the mind of the ancient Eldritch Abomination that he plans on resurrecting.
  • Screw Destiny: At the end, Bob breaks the Bond destiny by proposing to Mo.
  • Soviet Superscience: One of the MacGuffins at the core of the story is a "Gravedust" rig on a sunken Russian submarine that British intelligence believe was used to seek guidance from recently-deceased Politburo members in case the West struck first. It turns out to be built to dial up something much, much older...
  • Sunglasses at Night: The villain's mooks. Bob wonders why, and it turns out it's because they're wearing eyeliner, which their boss can use to monitor their eyes and ears. Since they have stock options, they don't mind, but the shades are because it's hard to take a guard wearing eyeliner seriously.
  • Synchronization: The protagonist is "destiny entangled" with his partner... this grants them useful tricks like telepathy and sensorium sharing (definitely a fetish when one half of the partnership is a succubus...) but with the downside that they eventually lose all individuality and become a single mind in two bodies.
  • The Tape Knew You Would Say That: The taped briefing Angleton leaves for Bob does this—to a certain extent. Angleton, while very good, ends up underestimating the time it will take for Bob to complete it, and the tape self-destructs before Bob is fully briefed.
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: The Big Bad sets up a powerful spell of compulsion that means everything has to happen exactly the way it would in a James Bond movie, thereby making making his plan impossible to stop unless challenged by a lone, British, martini-drinking secret agent. Furthermore, his plan hinges on terminating the spell at a crucial point (when the Bond figure gets captured by the villain), turning the narrative-powered hero back into a regular guy just before the Evil Plan runs to completion. Fortunately, the spell works both ways, meaning Bond Villain Stupidity is in full effect. And, crucially, he forgot that the basic James Bond plot formula has a number of small but significant variations...
  • This Page Will Self-Destruct: Happens to Bob's Powerpoint briefing when he takes too long and doesn't get to finish it. Angleton is less than pleased, and resorts to sending him future briefings in his dreams.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: It's a reasonably major plot point that the CIA doesn't consider anyone with demonic ancestry to be legally human.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: An in-universe whole plot reference: the bad guy uses Post-Modern Magik to make himself untouchable by anyone but a person who resembles James Bond, and as a side effect develops a tendency to monologue.