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E.C. McMullen Jr.
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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
Years ago I submitted one of my stories to a magazine. It came back with a rejection slip, no surprise there. Writer's at my grade level are surprised by the sales, not by the rejections. What did surprise me is that the assistant editor, or whoever filtered through the slush pile for the editor, wrote on the standard copy machine rejection note:
"First person stories are a cheat!"
The statement made no sense to me. Yes the story was in the first person, as most of my stories are. My favorite stories, usually, tend to be written in the first person. That's just the way I like it.
Charlie Huston's ALREADY DEAD, follows the tale of a vampire noir detective named Joe - although that's not his real name. Actually, Joe's not a detective at all. He takes unsavory jobs and, in the case of this book, he must don the role of Private Dick. And this tale, which starts off with hints of noir, shifts into Paul Schrader gear in no time flat.
A hardboiled vampire novel! It's hard not to love it just for the idea alone! But Charlie makes loving this novel easy.
Joe, the vampire telling this story, is a Manhattanite through and through, and the tale revolves around the uneasy but relatively stable truce between several of the vampire clans that rule the city. The primary ones being The Coalition, The Society, and The Hood. Among the minors are The Dusters, The Wall and in no man's land, The Enclave: Very small and the ones that scare the crap out of all of the other vampire clans. But as scary as they are, The Enclave have a culture that does not involve power plays and making territory grabs.
Joe makes a mistake when he comes across something rather unusual for Manhattan: A shambler. Humans also refer to them as zombies but whatever you want to call them, they are the living dead and, unlike Vampyres, uncontrollable. The Coalition pays low rung vampire contractors like Joe to remove such garbage from the streets before the humans get wind of it. There are over 4,000 vampires on the island alone. There are more than 5 million humans living in Manhattan. If the humans ever discovered the truth, the vampires wouldn't stand a chance against the human horde.
Speaking of the Horde, The eminence of The Coalition, Dexter Predo, has an assignment for Joe that he can't refuse: find the underage daughter of the very wealthy Hoarde family. Joe has to serve a human couple that knows everything about the darkness: That is, they know about the Vampyres. And Joe has to find the daughter before someone else does. Because the 14 year old girl is playing at being a Goth, but she is already trying to go beyond and deeper than any club. She is unknowingly approaching the very darkness. And at the moment, there is something far worse than Vampyres in the dark. There are shamblers.
Charlie Huston writes a great tale and I was with him all the way. All the way right up until he reached a crucial scene. Now here is where I must tell you about exposition and monologues.
In the 1800s, when Arthur Conan Doyle wanted Sherlock Holmes to unveil the evidence he'd stored in his brilliant mind, Holmes would reveal all to his beleaguered and befuddled associate, Dr. Watson - who was a proxy for us, the reader. Holmes would do this EVEN while he was giving chase because, after all, The Game Was Afoot!
Back in the 1930s and 1940s when Earle Stanley Gardner wanted his character, Perry Mason, to reach that point of the story where all the puzzle pieces of the mystery are put together, Perry did it in a courtroom where it would make sense to the reader that Mason would have to explain his closing arguments to a jury - or possibly break a witness on the stand.
When Agatha Christie's esteemed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot revealed the killer, he assembled all the possible witnesses / suspects into one room, usually with the law standing by. Then as he broke down the case, he whittled all the suspects down to a single person. The exposition made sense and was thrilling as the reader moved along with Hercule to see if they had guessed correctly or incorrectly.
Decade after decade, this is how it was done in literature.
In the late 1970s, movies were catching up. Comedies like LOVE AT FIRST BITE revealed what poor clichéd writing was.
"Because the bad guys always tell the good guys what they are going to do before they try to kill them!"
In the 1980s good writing prevailed as in GHOSTBUSTERS. The boys have to spill the beans to the mayor in order to save the city, and it was done with wit and verve.
In the 1990s it was AUSTIN POWERS: International Man Of Mystery, and the odd explanation of why in the world the bad guy would reveal anything to the good guy and not just kill their prisoner. In the 2000s it was THE INCREDIBLES and the running joke of how the bad guys, right when they have the hero in their grip, start monologue-ing.
So imagine my surprise when it happened in this book. The hero is caught. Then the bad guy, instead of doing his business, goes into his long monologue of why he set up the plot! And once all the talking is over, a deus ex machina comes in at the last moment and saves Joe's butt.
Minus one bookwyrm
Then a few pages later, it happens again with Joe and ANOTHER bad guy! Joe goes into pages of exposition telling the second bad guy why Joe is such a smart so and so. Then the second bad guy, instead of beating Joe for still more information or just killing him, goes into HIS long spiel about why HE is really so much smarter than Joe. Then the calvary comes in and saves Joe's butt! And with this second bit of ridiculousness, I tossed the book across the room.
The hell, man! The freaking hell! Why freakin' why did Huston do that to such a great story?
I don't want to review it now. The rest of the book is going to shit after such a tremendous start and great ride through the middle.
Yet I kept it around. Months passed and the story preyed on my mind. You know how that is? You find a story that is really, truly, cool but it has this one rotten part? Like THE MATRIX and that stupid "humans are batteries" thing. Or THE MATRIX: Reloaded and that that stupid yappy Architect and dance. Or THE MATRIX: Revolutions and everything in it.
So today I re-read the whole thing, forcing myself past that yawning gap of horrible writing to make it to the end.
So what is ALREADY DEAD? It's a really kick-ass book with a fist-sized rot of writing near the end. It gets better after that long and drawn out moment, but never really recovers. Two back to back scenes of total expositional, stop-the-story and render the monologue, bad pivotal plot point revelations that writers have been making fun of for years: Hell, for decades! Far better than having two characters tell each other what they already know, would have been for Huston to have Joe tell us, in his first person inner monologue, what he'd already figured out.
That would have given more than 3 BookWyrms to ALREADY DEAD. And 3 BookWyrms is a pretty good rating. But this car could have grabbed the checkered flag - and then ate it - had it not blown a tire in the final lap. Even right this second that blown tire disappoints the shit out of me.
This review copyright 2006 E.C.McMullen Jr.