I keep my eye out for urban fantasy with an unusual angle. By ‘unusual,’ you can assume a distinct lack of werewolves and vampires. This one caught my eye with a combination of police detective, New York City, and the idea that the dead return to life. Not as zombies, mind you, but just as people–but aging backwards. Within the first few pages, the detective Donner and his wife, Elsie, are killed in a bodega. Next moment is at graveside, as a team of people are disinterring and transports Donner to a hospital to repair his life-threatening wounds, throwing in a replacement liver as a bonus. Donner has become a ‘reborn,’ marked by white hair and black nails, and current society seems to hate them, perhaps for being the reason NYC is now surrounded by a force field and isolated from the rest of the world in hopes of keeping the virus contained.
It’s really an intriguing set-up, and trying to work out both the mystery and the world kept me engrossed. Divided into three parts, the first centers on Donner’s rebirth, and a certain investigation he’s forced to take on. ‘Part Two: The Underneath,’ centers on a the results of that investigation after some very significant events. The last third, “Unicorn Hunt,’ is the classic resolution. Chapters are often very short, some only two pages long, and take a variety of perspectives and formats. There are a couple that are transcripts of conversations, and a couple that are part of internet broadcasts. Sections written from Donner’s perspective tend to be longer.
“No escape. Even the sky was wrong, swirling and out of focus behind the magnetic Blister. The whole thing, the combination platter of styles and periods, made me want to curl into a tight ball right there on the cold street.
I’d busted this crack fiend once. He’d been a real hardcase, back from a two-week suicide run during which he’d stolen his grandmother’s silver, gotten kicked out of another shelter and flushed his last chance at redemption down the crapper. I remember him telling me as the cuffs clicked shut, ‘I got no place to go that I understand.’
Now I knew what he was talking about.”
When I read ‘about the author’ at the end, this started to make more sense; the author has extensive television writing experience, including Cybil (with Cybil Shepard) and numerous plays. So my difficulties with the book largely had to do with this choppiness of perspective. Even before I knew Dempsey was a tv writer, I guessed it, as scenes began to visualize as I read. ‘Cut,’ cue ‘flashback scene with wife,’ ‘cut’ cue ‘current scene where Donner has a dramatic revelation’ ‘cut’ ‘scene with villain showing them doing something villainous.’
On the upside, this made for a relatively fast-paced, easy read; no small feat given a decently-written trade paperback at 360 pages. On the down side, there were several sections that were extraneous (the viewpoint of a rich teen whose father became a reborn, for instance) that were mostly serving to build suspense at how dastardly the forces Donner was investigating were. The transcripts were too clever, attempting to foreshadow a predictable ‘mysterious figure’ but then blindsiding the reader when the figure’s full history was unveiled.
The underpinning of the book is the Philip Marlowe school of detection. Some will argue that the characters were stereotypical, but I believe that is kind of the point. We have the alcoholic detective, the gamine Girl Friday, the sultry woman wanting a favor, the contacts in the police force, along with all the plot stereotypes it entails. But wrapped around it all is a Blade Runner sci-fi world with flying cars, a ‘net that holds all information ever needed, ‘smartie’ artificial intelligence that look just like humans, and the seeds of revolution in the hotbed of the city (It also put me in mind of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, not the least of which one of the watchers to the unburial is named Kovacs). It probably isn’t sci-fi as much as some would like–there’s some hand-wavy genetics going on–but it is certainly an intriguing ride. I think I’ll keep it around my library for awhile and hopefully give it a re-read.
Old interview with Dempsey at MyBookishWays
First chapter of Necropolis at Goodreads