Dave Hutchinson: Cold Water

What can readers expect?
If they’re already familiar with the other Fractured Europe books, it’s more of the same kind of stuff. Pocket universes, insanely-complicated intelligence ops, hotel breakfasts, huge conspiracies, Texel sheep, trains. That sort of thing.

Dave Hutchinson, talking about Cold Water (2022)

I’ve reviewed Dave Hutchinson’s previous novels from the Fractured Europe Sequence before—the first three here, and the fourth here. And this is the fifth, which is an unexpected treat, given that Hutchinson gave every indication of being done with Fractured Europe when he signed off at the end of the fourth novel, Europe At Dawn, four years ago—this despite having ended that novel with a last-chapter revelation that opened up the potential for all sorts of new developments.

When this one first became available for pre-order on Amazon, it included the tag “(Volume One)” after the title, suggesting that a new series of stories was in the offing—the tag subsequently disappeared, but Hutchinson has confirmed on Twitter that he has plans for more novels, though he’s quite definitely not making any promises about when the next volume will appear.

It’s rather difficult to summarize the madly complex background to these novels, but here goes. They’re set in Europe a few decades from now. A lethal flu epidemic and a mounting migrant and refugee crisis have driven the rise of petty nationalism, causing the European Union to fall apart into hundreds of independent states with stern border formalities—there are now (Hutchinson told us in a previous volume) 532 entries for the Eurovision Song Contest, and the old Schengen ideal of free movement is dead. But people still need to move stuff across borders—often confidentially, sometimes illegally. A shadowy (and shady) organization called Les Coureurs des Bois undertakes to move such “Packages” around Europe for its clients. And, while not necessarily functioning as spies themselves, Les Coureurs certainly have interactions (good and bad) with the intelligence agencies of many of Europe’s disparate new states. So a defining theme of the Fractured Europe stories is the characters’ engagement with complex and slightly futuristic tradecraft.

The other defining theme is the “pocket universes” that Hutchinson mentioned in his interview, quoted at the head of this post. Late in the first novel we’re introduced to a parallel version of Europe, accessible from our world by those who are capable of the necessary convoluted route finding. By taking just the right turning in just the right place, in just the right way, one can step out into a rural, Victorian version of Europe, entirely populated by the descendants of English people who found their way there centuries ago. (For more on that, I refer you to my previous reviews, via the links in my first paragraph.) As the sequence of novels has progressed, Hutchinson’s characters have encountered more of these pocket universes.

OK. Got all that? Espionage and clandestine operations set in a very complicated version of Europe, and one or more parallel universes. Simple, really.

The protagonist of this novel is Carey Tews, a journalist-cum-private-investigator and one-time Coureur, whom we encountered briefly in a single chapter of Europe In Winter. In Cold Water, Hutchinson tells her story in two parallel narrative threads. One thread looks back at Carey’s life during the aftermath of the Xian flu pandemic and the early disintegration of the European Union, and tells how she was recruited into the Coureurs. In the second thread, the “present day” of the narrative, we find Carey as an ex-Coureur, asked to investigate the disappearance of her Coureur ex-colleague and ex-lover, Maksim, in the Polish town of Gliwice (which happens to be seeking independence from the rest of Poland).

“What’s he got himself mixed up in now?” she asked.
“We were rather hoping you’d agree to find out for us,” he said. “On the face of it, he mostly seems to have got himself dead.”

Interleaved with the two Carey threads we have the story of Krista, an Estonian police officer who is told that her deceased father, also once a police officer, has been accused of a historical crime—killing a member of Estonia’s ethnic Russian community in order to hush up an episode of police misconduct. Another thread deals with Lenna, an Estonian journalist with a drink problem, who is recruited to investigate the allegations against Krista’s father.

The connection between Krista and Lenna’s stories is quickly apparent, and plays out against a background of increasing ethnic tensions in Estonia. As in his previous novels, Hutchinson’s concerns here seem prescient—his fictional scenario has seen a counterpart in reality in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Carey’s investigation of Maksim’s death is punctuated by odd phone-calls, in which an English woman’s voice asks, “Who are you?” and then hangs up the call, irrespective of Carey’s response. Meanwhile, she recruits a team—a British journalist, a Russian ex-spy, and a Polish hacker called Magda, who appears ridiculously young to Carey until Magda’s cousin turns up to assist:

Magda’s cousin Boksi—Carey never found out his real name—looked, if anything, younger than her, but that might have been something to do with him turning up wearing his school uniform.

Hutchinson is good at these droll asides, and manages the trick of using them to both amuse and advance the plot. In the narrative dealing with Carey’s earlier life, she and Maksim dine together and we learn much of what we need to know about him in a single phrase: “He attracted a waitress by force of personality alone”.

Eventually (of course) Krista’s story converges with Carey’s, and we find out what really happened to Maksim, and what those mysterious phone calls are all about. The pay-off is a good one, and (as seems to be Hutchinson’s habit) is largely confined to a final chapter full of revelations, complications and potential future plot elements.

It’s good to be back in Fractured Europe again, and learning a little more about how it came to be. Carey and her team are engaging investigators, full of tricks and tradecraft; Krista is wilful, tricksy and determined in trying to find out the truth about her father; Lenna’s mournful self-destructiveness is well-drawn, but her story seems to foozle rather abruptly—perhaps we’ll see her again in the next novel.

The pocket universes don’t feature until about two-thirds of the way through this one, at just about the point where you wonder if they’re going to feature at all. So I for one raised a cheer when a mysterious man with a broad West Country accent eventually turned up. Those who remember the ending of Europe At Dawn will get the chance to say, “Ooh, I see,” at one point, but the small amount of pocket universe action in Cold Water seems like a set-up for elaboration in future stories.

So there’s much to look forward to, if and when Hutchinson gives us the next volume.

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