Wake Up and Dream by Ian R MacLeod is a gripping film noire SF mystery/thriller set in the Hollywood of 1940.
In the movie business the “feelies” have replaced the talkies in the same way that the talkies replaced silent movies. The protagonist of Wake Up and Dream is none other than Clarke Gable. Having been unable to work with the technology used to generate feelie movies – contraptions of glass and wire and valves that capture actors’ emotions, to be conveyed to audiences in special feelie cinemas – Gable has seen his acting career fade. While occasionally recognised by ladies of a certain age, Gable has become a low-end private detective in order to keep the wolf from the door.
Enter April Lamotte, the wife and agent of Daniel Lamotte – one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters. It transpires that Mr Lamotte suffers mental health problems and is currently on retreat. With a contract waiting to be signed on the lucrative deal for the feelie script of the novel’s title, and with an expensive lifestyle to fund, Mrs Lamotte can’t afford to delay. As a result she asks Gable to impersonate Daniel Lamotte for the purposes of signing, claiming that with a little Brylcreem and fake glasses Gable could pass for her husband.
Despite the obvious illegalities associated with the proposal, Gable is struggling financially and agrees to dust off his old acting skills for this unusual role. Having taken on the persona of Daniel Lamotte, however, Gable soon finds himself embroiled in a chain of sinister events, and a mystery rapidly unfolds that seems to permeate the entire Hollywood film industry.
I read Wake Up and Dream in two sittings. Admittedly I was on holiday, but I can assure you that this just doesn’t happen. I can think of only two other books that have held me with such a firm grip from the get-go: Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Stamping Butterflies and Christopher Priest’s The Prestige. Like the latter title, the period setting is to some extent dictated by the technology at the heart of the story, and use of Clarke Gable as the protagonist is a stroke of genius that gives the reader an immediate relationship and familiarity with the novel.
One of the most striking aspects of Wake Up and Dream is its authentic feel. MacLeod has clearly conducted extensive research of the period and utilised much of this information while maintaining the easy flow of reading: there are no info-dumps or dense passages of composition, with the book subtly seducing the reader in the way of many successful thrillers before it.
Issues such as the racism and bigotry as well as the political background of the period are all handled with great skill. The characters are wonderful, too, particularly those in less prominent roles. Take Roger, for example – a street-wise kid who hangs around near the small apartment in the gritty downtown area of Hollywood that Daniel Lamotte uses to write his screenplays. With knowledge well beyond his years, Roger’s brief appearances through the novel are a delight. Similarly, private detective Abe Penn is a marvellous demonstration of economy in character building, skilfully drawn over the course of what amounts to just a few sentences. Then there’s the youthful exuberance and Hollywood ridiculousness of Timmy Townsend – senior production executive at Senserama.
While at least one question is left unanswered at the end of Wake Up and Dream, for me this is MacLeod’s finest work to date. Liberally sprinkled with clues, cliffhangers and cameos, this gripping novel takes this author’s already exceptional writing to another level.