This book review of We Need Madmen by Sam Smith was (probably) written in 2007 for the website Infinity Plus.
Skrev Press, 2007, £9.99, ISBN 978-1-904646-45-7
I say it as a piece of high praise that the only give-away that We Need Madmen isn’t a professionally edited and produced title is its unorthodox format: it is perhaps just one-third the size of a conventional paperback. But if its physical dimensions – length, breadth and width – are Lilliputian, then its literary depth certainly isn’t.
We Need Madmen follows Henry Bethune, a petty criminal and, not coincidentally, survivor of Soper’s camps. It’s the near future and most of Europe is occupied by UN forces following the defeat of Soper – an English analogue of Hitler, that “common-sense”, populist demagogue – who took control of the EU as part of an almost-realised plan to take over the world.
Fortunately, the rest of planet earth was not convinced by Soper’s Daily Mail-esque appeals, and the resultant alliance of necessity has spawned a new world order of sorts that, we are told in one of the quotes that regularly punctuate the main story, is a marked improvement upon previous such efforts.
But for the most part We Need Madmen is not an armchair analysis of Soper’s strategy, or a breathless narration of the battles he won and lost, edgy with second-hand adrenaline reinforced by hindsight. We Need Madmen is a far better book than that, and Soper is a character we meet only through his remaining writings.
Henry Bethune – a nobody, one of many forgotten victims – is suddenly blessed with a large sum of money of questionable provenance. The money empowers Harry, giving him the confidence and wherewithal to conduct his own solo Nuremberg trials against those who aided and collaborated with Soper. Because, as the included quotes from one of Soper’s prosecutors points out, ‘We cannot punish an entire subcontinent. We shall have to believe that many were honestly misled.’ Henry knows this for a convenient fiction and rejects it. He sees that so many of Soper’s followers who escaped prosecution are now seeking to escape any sense of guilt or shame, and their hypocrisy drives him to take action.
Soper’s deeds, it is provocatively suggested, indeed other such ‘Sopers’ themselves (e.g., Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot) are necessary to orient our moral compass – without evil there can be no good, etc. – so that much as we may despise these madmen they do allow us to define precisely where our own moral standards lie. We can see what we do not want, and by doing so better understand what we do want. It is, at least, a way of seeing a positive in an otherwise overwhelming negative.
Interestingly, of course, Henry himself is a madman (albeit, a not entirely unsympathetic one), carrying out evil acts for a supposed noble end – that of revealing and punishing those guilty yet still at large. And, to confuse our already spinning moral compass even further, the author gives a potted background of a number of Henry’s victims, all of whom turn out not to be ‘evil’ at all, but possess very human reasons and motivations for the crimes they committed under Soper.
We Need Madmen is a truly fascinating, though brief, exploration of ideas; a deliberately leading and questioning book that may make you feel a little uncomfortable – one that will leave you pondering for a length of time in inverse proportion to its own short length.