These celebrity Doctor Who novels are interesting. Sure, we all know that they are written with the assistance of an established novelist (in this case Jac Rayner) but you can always feel something of the performer coming through in the text; At Childhood’s End had the voice of Sophie Aldred and Scratchman definitely had some of the distinctive phrasing of Tom Baker. The Ruby’s Curse is no exception; you can feel Alex Kingston’s silky tones and wry sense of humour running right through it like a stick of Blackpool rock. In my opinion, it’s these new voices that make the celebrity novels so enjoyable to read; the standard novels are often by the same people who were writing in the days of The New Adventures 30 years ago, telling the same types of stories that are too closely influenced by classic episodes of the TV series. Actors know nothing of the show’s history and their ideas and storylines are frequently far fresher because of it.
The Ruby’s Curse starts with Alex’s character River Song incarcerated in the maximum security Stormcage Prison, as she was for much of the TV series. But whereas River was able to waltz in and out of Stormcage with seeming impunity on TV, the novel wisely chooses to make her departure more challenging, thus creating a much greater sense of jeopardy. River has not been idle whilst in prison; she’s been writing a hardboiled detective novel set in New York in the 1930s and featuring her alter-ego Melody Malone. In her novel, Melody Malone is hired to find a priceless ruby called the Eye of Horus, which holds the secret to the location of Cleopatra’s tomb in Egypt; however, reality soon begins to mirror fantasy as River is charged with locating a reality-warping superweapon which goes by the same name.
The early chapters of the book alternate between River Song in the Stormcage prison and chapters of the book that she is writing starring Melody Malone, who is essentially a slightly more ballsy version of herself. The Melody Malone parts are written in a broad homage to the hardboiled detective fiction of the 30s and 40s, as popularised by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but with a more English twist. Of course, it’s slightly ironic that Chandler’s work is considered quintessentially American, as he spent most of his formative years in London. Later in the book, River is separated from her unfinished manuscript and gets it back to discover that it has been finished – by her future self, her former cellmate Ventrion or by a third party? Suddenly, the mixing of reality and fantasy threads becomes a much more intricate story device as both narrator and reader must look for clues in the fictional detective story.
The River storyline is segregated into three distinct acts; the Stormcage segment, a segment set in ancient Egypt where our heroine meets up with Cleopatra and tries to fathom out the new chapters of her book, and a final act in which she becomes part of the book due to the reality-twisting properties of the weapon that she is seeking. Looked at out of context, it might seem difficult to understand how these three disparate elements of the story form a cohesive whole – but they do. The Ruby’s Curse is a particularly clever book and its intricacies are more than mere window dressing; the clues are all there to work out the mystery in advance if you pay attention. A prior knowledge of how mystery books work will probably be advantageous, but is by no means required to follow the narrative.
The final sequence, in which River and Melody Malone team up, is part of the ‘book’ thread, but moves away from the hardboiled detective mystery genre and instead borrows extensively from the gentler mode of the books of Agatha Christie (with a subtle touch of Cleudo). Here the story starts to unfold; not only the Melody Malone ‘book’ story, which has managed to stay coherent despite only being told in intermittent parts, but also, indirectly, the River Song storyline involving the ultimate weapon and Cleopatra. Once again, describing it in this way makes it sound like a real dog’s dinner, but it isn’t and the narrative is never less than followable. This is the novel’s real triumph; that it’s able to tell such a complex story without ever losing the reader.
Although it dabbles with heavyweight content, this is not a novel that ever takes itself too seriously; which is a blessing, because the River/Doctor relationship is one of those things that some fans like to examine in microscopic detail, even though it was always portrayed on television as quite light-hearted. There’s a lovely streak of humour throughout the story and it’s not afraid to be silly when the occasion arises; my favourite example is the character of Mrs Peterson-Lee, who is comically named after the 1970s easy listening duo Peters and Lee, who had a big hit in the UK with Welcome Home. I’m presuming that it’s also intentional that characters in the Melody Malone storyline are named after famous hardboiled detectives, Harry (Lime) and Phil (ip Marlowe), which are just subtle enough to not be immediately noticeable.
I’ve read elsewhere that you’d have to be a fan and have a working knowledge of River Song’s back-story to understand this novel, but I disagree. There’s enough information in the text to give even the most uninformed reader enough of an insight into River’s life to understand the story. There are pleasingly few fan elements in the story and the Doctor himself is only mentioned in passing a few times. I think this is where The Ruby’s Curse succeeds over some of the other celebrity novels because in, for example, Scratchman there are deep cuts of Doctor Who continuity that you just know haven’t come from the creative mind of Tom Baker and the reader is left acutely aware that the book was written with the assistance of a co-author. A good co-author should be invisible; their input should be secondary to that of the named writer – and that is very much the case with the partnership of Alex Kingston and Jac Rayner on this novel.
The Ruby’s Curse is a very enjoyable book; an intricate puzzle-box of a story that simultaneously manages to ask a lot of the reader whilst conveying the story in an accessible manner. It never feels the need to shove in the Weeping Angels or the Daleks or anything (apart from a brief cameo from a Silent) but is confident enough in its own conceit to stand alone as a novel. You could almost take the words Doctor Who off the cover. Of course, there are always some fans that will see this as a negative point, but I’m not one of them. As a ‘franchise’, Doctor Who is big and ugly enough to encompass a broad spectrum of styles and a mind-bending, meta-textual, hard-boiled detective whodunit conundrum of a novel like The Ruby’s Curse is a welcome addition. I’d love to read more books by Alex Kingston, regardless of whether they’re set in the universe of River Song or not, as I think she could make an excellent novelist on the evidence of this fascinating, refreshing start.
‘Doctor Who – The Ruby’s Curse’ by Alex Kingston is published in hardback by BBC Books / Penguin Random House (2021).