Steve Aylett, The Crime Studio

Steve Aylett writes metaphors like no one else in the English language. For instance: "It seemed he had sneezed out an entire brainlobe in early adolescence, and what remained swam in his skull like a lone crouton." Or again: "Leon Wardial was cheerfully ahead of his time-but it was a close call." Or yet again: "We thought our passion would last forever, like styrofoam."

Aylett's prose messes with the reader's mind, on many levels. Cliches are absurdly literalized. Similes and metonymies turn themselves inside out. Seemingly flat statements of fact burst into cascades of mind-boggling associations. Parodies of hard-boiled-detective prose turn commonplace assumptions upside-down. Strange premises ("more murders are committed at 92 degrees fahrenheit than at any other temperature") lead inexorably to ultra-violent conclusions.

All this makes Aylett's novel read like the "Police Beat" column on acid. The book's content perfectly matches its style. The Crime Studio is basically a series of deadpan comic vignettes of bizarre crimes. It's the first (though the last to be published in the United States) of three books by Aylett that are set in Beerlight, an American city of the future whose entire economy seems to be based upon burglaries, assassinations, and random bursts of gunfire.

In the course of The Crime Studio, we meet such characters as Brute Parker, proprietor of the city's all-night gun store, who is as likely as not to kill you with whatever weapon you are trying to buy from him; Billy Panacea, "burgler extraordinaire," who commits his crimes more for aesthetic impact than financial gain; Harpoon Specter, con man and shyster lawyer, who wreaks havoc with his twisted pleas in court; and Henry Blince, the fat Chief of Police, whose ingenious theories, devised to frame innocent people, always involve food found at the scene of the crime, and are foiled only by his inveterate habit of unwittingly eating all the evidence. (All these figures return even more hilariously in the sequel, Slaughtermatic).

There are also numerous episodes turning on disguises, forged and mistaken identities, and odd role inversions. When the denizens of Beerlight aren't planning arcane crimes or impossible jailbreaks, they are usually either drinking themselves into insensibility, or playing insanely elaborate practical jokes on one another.

All in all, this (together with Aylett's other novels) is the most hilarious book I have read in years. But what gets to me most of all about The Crime Studio is still its prose style. The only thing more unsettling than the derangement and delirium depicted in these pages is the cool lucidity, ironic concision, and rigorous, almost abstract logic with which Aylett displays it all to us.