by Charlie Huston
Review by John Berlyne
Orbit Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1841495263
Date: 01 February, 2007 List Price £6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
A highly acclaimed Vampire thriller by US crime writer Charlie Huston. Check out www.Pulpnoir.com, Charlie Huston's official site. Previously covered on Sfrevu a year ago when released in the US (click here to read that review)in this issue, I take the opportunity to scrutinize this novel with a UK audience in mind.
The market place is almost choking on supernatural thrillers at the moment – which, if you happen to be a fan of this kind of fiction, is no bad thing. Certainly plenty of folks are buying these books, and British publisher Orbit remains the front runner of those eager to meet this demand. The latest of their dark offerings is Already Dead, an American import (as so many of these novels tend to be), this time by Charlie Huston, a writer hitherto specialising in pulp noir crime stories.
Given his previous (much applauded) credits one might think a Vampyre (this is Huston's preferred spelling) story might be a huge departure for Huston, but this is not so. What he offers is essentially a pulp noir crime story, albeit with a backdrop in which the various factions, rather than being Mafioso families or eastern European crime gangs, are instead groups of undead blood-suckers. The result, though certainly engaging and neatly put together is a fairly formulaic affair with a hard nosed bruiser-for-hire protagonist sent off to find some MacGuffin or other and uncovering/encountering various unpleasant situations/characters along the way.
Our bruiser is Joe Pitt, a Vampyre (obviously), but unaffiliated with the factions and clans that would appear to run the various neighbourhoods of Manhattan. This is the main plot foundation of Already Dead – those infected with the vyrus are factionalised, each controlling territory and each a philosophically individual power base that continually grinds against its neighbours like tectonic plates. The inevitable results are never-ending turf wars, treaties and betrayals and given Vampyric longevity, there is considerable history between the various groups. Joe, however, is a rare commodity – a true independent, able to operate on his own and to slip between the cracks. But he's not as free as he might hope, for to maintain his freedom, he is subject to politics as much any one else - being a free agent comes at a considerable cost.
This Vampyre activity is not however, overt. Though the setting is contemporary, the Vampyre element is an underground one, albeit a powerful one. Their existence is known to those not effected by the vyrus, but the tensions here are mainly between the Vampyre factions rather than between Vampyre and non-vampyre. This subtracts a little from Huston's world, for it becomes a little like witnessing events in an ant colony – they don't seem to greatly effect the larger world. On the other hand, it's a twist on the usual treatment.
Nevertheless, Already Dead is deftly constructed – and there is the usual motley collection of noir characters – a stiff suited, mean spirited captain of industry and his vampy lush of a wife; various scum-bag informants and sycophant lieutenants; thick-set goons; a faithful and hard-done-by girlfriend...all archetypes and necessary for the conventions of this kind of plot. Already Dead in no way reinvents the wheel, but it's an enjoyable enough variation on a popular theme and there's no denying it is skilfully done.
Huston's style is forceful and direct and his pacing is impressive and relentless. To reinforce this, Already Dead runs straight through, without chapter breaks and throughout Huston chooses to employ hyphens to indicate dialogue rather than the recognized convention of "speech marks". Additionally, he dispenses altogether with such old-fashioned narrative habits like "he said" or "she said". The result is that this affectation (for it serves no other purpose) is a little confusing for the reader, should one have to pick up the story in the middle of a section (which due to the lack of chapter breaks, one is forced to do) – it's pretty damn hard to keep track of who is saying what to who!
Earlier this year Orbit published Mike Carey's excellent The Devil You Know and Vicious Circle, both of which I enjoyed enormously and both of which are set within a not dissimilar supernatural thriller framework. Carey, one of the few truly successful British proponents of this type of fiction won me over – aside from his brilliant writing - with his depiction of London in the thrall of a supernatural make-over. The city itself loomed large as a character in Carey's work, and I hoped very much that Huston’s novel would do the same thing for contemporary New York. It starts out with this promise, but quickly, the setting becomes mere background to the story rather than a part of it. Already Dead could just as easily have fitted into any of the world's major cities, or even a made up one. I think Huston missed a big trick here.
Already Dead is a paperback published by Orbit. A sequel, No Dominion is published this month in trade paperback in the US by Del Rey.