Big Finish
A Life in Pieces
A Collection of Novellas

Written by Dave Stone, Paul Sutton and Joseph Lidster Cover image
ISBN 1 844351 08 4
Published 2004

Synopsis: Benny finds herself on a luxury holiday, the purpura pawn is stolen and popular politician Mark Morton has been murdered. But when her husband is arrested for the murder, things start to really go awry.


Is Jason a murderer? by Joe Ford 15/1/06

I really don't like this sudden splurge of hardback Big Finish books that have sprung up from nowhere. They are short story collections with a very loose theme, historicals, Christmas, the year 2040, etc. The trouble is with so many voices being heard the level of quality is extremely variable and besides which just how good can a short story be? Superficially enjoyable maybe but not long enough to be told in any great depth or to involve characters that impress simply because we don't spend enough time with them. I gave up buying them after the third or fourth anthology, spending that amount of money on something I wasn't enjoying made me feel like a right twonk.

So trust the excellent Bernice Summerfield range to buck the trend and remind the Doctor Who universe how to make these things work (yes that is another dig at the audio series). They have mastered the short story collection (A Life of Surprises was an intriguing book which flitted in and out of Bernice's long history, Life During Wartime was a gripping running story about the military occupation of the Braxiatel Collection and A Life Worth Living dealt with the consequences of the occupation and showed the regular cast coming to terms with their new found freedom) simply because the Bernice range is a running story and involves the same cast of characters so each collection involves further layering of people we already know. A Life in Pieces seemed like an intriguing idea: longer stories, a linking narration but three separate voices to tell the tale.

This is an amazing piece of work. Expertly edited by Gary Russell, what we have here is a book which rewards its reader in spades. Considering that three different writers made this happen there is an astonishing amount of consistency in the main storyline with each of the stories intertwining beautifully. Hints and clues are dropped in the first story, developments are made in the second story and the final story provides some jaw-dropping twists that make following this story and the Bernice Summerfield audio/print range extremely satisfying. I turned the last page with a dizzy spell, shocked at what the results of this book meant for the range. Sod that silly Gods arc in the Virgin range; this is how to reward your audience.

The best thing about it is that the three stories couldn't be more different if they tried. What you have here is essentially a camp comedy, an urban crime tale and a political thriller. The writing is damn strong throughout with Dave Stone providing one of his best ever stories, Joseph Lidster proving as adept at creating great drama on page as he is on audio and Paul Sutton adept at creating atmosphere and strong characterisation. The latter was the weakest but only because the other two are so strong; Sutton's writing is perfectly good and in some spots inspiring.

Zardox Break is the sort of story that could only be told in this series, the sort that would cause all those generic we-only-like-traditional-Doctor-Who stories to come out in a rash all over. It does not take itself seriously, it has the audacity to constantly refer to the audience and the fact that it is a story, it has lots of rude bits and it turns the life of Bernice Summerfield into a jokey parody. It's also pant-wettingly funny (you're paying for my laundry bill Stone!) with Dave Stone at his all-time best, the sort of story we haven't seen from him since his introduction to the Doctor Who universe, the joke to page ratio is the highest I have ever seen. Nothing escapes Stone's vicious parody of reality TV shows; the horrifying army of girlie fans lusting after Jason (WE WANT YOUR BABIES!), the ultra camp beauty artiste Carlo Hooty (dahh-ling!), the extreme lengths Benny and Jason have to go to to ensure privacy from the TV cameras ("Oh God! Yes! I never knew it could be this good!"), the Charlie's Angels style five piece girl band (the Glitta Bitches!) and the bald-headed super villain in his pre-ordered villains' lair stroking his evil-eyed pussy! This is a sugar high of fun and proof of how far the Benny range can go, Stone relishing in the amount of rules he is allowed to break. What's more Benny and Jason are spot on, both discovering the limits of their new-found relationship and astonishingly both managing to resist the attempts of MegaStel to split them up. Stone remembers Jason's bi-sexuality (which everyone seems to have forgotten these days) and Benny's attitude to life really has changed since her old days adventuring with the Doctor; her attitude towards Jason is further proof of how far she has come.

The Purpura Pawn is a far more sombre affair but one which gets us to the point of the main story much more effectively. This novella collection exploits what I believe is the biggest strength of the Benny series, its cast and here we see Adrian, Bev and Brax on Earth, each involved of the machinations of the recently stolen Purpura Pawn. The tone of the story is grim, this is the sort of seedy, hard-as-nails thriller that ventures into the filthiest area of town and revels in the underhanded dealings that goes on there. Here the Pawn is made to seem all-important and its theft is skipped over, it soon transpires in Lidster's story that this is clever misdirection and the two are reversed later on. What works best is the characterisation, Sutton manages to convincingly portray a four-man assassination squad without descending into any serious cliches and even allows us close to them to see how the death of one genuinely affects the others. Bev and Adrian are always welcome and there is some real development for both characters; Bev suddenly realising the overgrown pooch is really a person (sometimes it's easier to judge by appearances) and Adrian growing very protective of his new friend (to the point where he would rather look after her than rush off and protect his precious Benny). Brax is the star, as usual, pulling the strings from every angle and with a shocking final twist proving just how manipulative he can be.

The highlight of the collection is Joseph Lidster's On Trial, a superb piece of writing in its own right (and one which had me eagerly flicking the pages to get to the next shocking revelation!) and a brilliant way of tying up the collection. Lidster employs a clever device of seeing the consequences of Jason's visit to Verum forty years in the future, a historian piecing together the story to prove Jason's murder of the popular politician Mark Morton. It allows us to see the story from many perspectives, Benny's diary, Jason's trial video, the witness statements, news broadcasts and we get to witness the consequences of the trial. This is highly engaging stuff, with Jason supposedly being set up and Benny desperate to find evidence to save him; it is a race against time to prevent his execution. The story ducks and dives through many conspiracy theories before settling on a final answer which only the reader is privy to (having read the previous two stories) and it is a real shocker. This has been set up ever since The Mirror Effect audio, continued through the Life During Wartime anthology and finally receiving some incredible pay off here. Did Jason really kill Morton? Even Benny doubts his innocence at the end of the book... and if so, who is pulling his strings? Big revelations are ahead for the cast of this series and I for one cannot wait. The final page of the book is a startling reminder of the secret power behind the Benny range and her earlier naive comments about being able to trust everyone around her are almost a cruel inclusion...

Is there nothing this range cannot conquer? It is so depressing that people refuse to get on board this fabulous spinoff as they are truly missing out on some quality storytelling. The fact that the regular cast is still evolving, still surprising, is a testament to their creation and the amount of work that has been put into the range by Gary Russell. It really is his greatest accomplishment with Big Finish.

Stunningly good and surprisingly diverse, this is better than any Doctor Who book I have read in years.