Sunday, 2 September 2012

Chris F Holm: Dead Harvest

It's only when I saw the titles of his next two books that I realised that the title Dead Harvest is supposed to be a gag of sorts, punning on Dashiel Hammet's Red Harvest. If I'd made that leap, I'd probably have figured out the overarching plot of Holm's book a little quicker than I did.

During its all too brief run, I was a huge fan of the odd comedy Dead Like Me, which revolved around the day to day work of guys who had to take the souls of people who were about to die as part of the - unnecessarily complicated - process of running the afterlife. It worked because it had a wonderfully sardonic tone and it felt like a workplace comedy in a preposterous workplace. It helped that Mandy Patinkin was the boss, because Mandy Patinkin seems magically to make everything better than it ought to be, but the real secret weapon was incredibly sharp writing. Like so many odd and would-be brainy things on TV, it didn't last long, but it was fun while it did, and at least it didn't linger on getting worse and worse the way most long running shows seem to.

Holm has taken a pretty similar idea, and then brought it off somewhere much more miserable. His narrator is a Collector of souls, who goes around snagging the souls of the damned for onward transmission to hell. This seems theologically a bit suspect to me, but odds are that Holm and I were raised with different theologies, and anyhow, who'd want to ruin a sweet premise like that with consideration of the whole question of final judgement and the possibility of deathbed redemption? In Holm's cosmogony, good and evil have got a whole cold war thing going on, with rules and stuff. I've noticed that since the real Cold War petered out, people have been missing it terribly and have been borrowing its curious dynamic for all kinds of other black and white conflicts, such as good and evil, werewolves and vampires and the relationship between political parties. If you can't afford to risk the war, you find ways to justify avoiding it, but you never go to the crazy length of admitting that there's no real reason to have a war, because if you did that, the general public might draw all kinds of unwelcome conclusions about your own value to the community.

And that's all very well and good; there's something very relateable about guys just trying to get through the working day and collect a pay cheque. Terry Pratchett and Neill Gaiman collaborated on one of the best ever explorations of that notion, Good Omens, and it works in part because its angel and demon are so believably just trying to get by.

In short, Holm is treading a well worn path. How well does he do it? Good and bad. I started Dead Harvest about a month ago and left it to one side while I read all kinds of other things. Then I came back to it to wrap it all up. Now, it's a good sign that I bothered to come back, and another good sign that I was able to get back into it after a month and still remembered how it all fitted together and where it was supposed to be going. Holm had done a fair job sketching in his world and cast and the rules they live by. I could stop a third of the way through and come back to it without misgivings or the need to page back and see what the heck I'd forgotten. 

Sadly, the back half lets him down a bit, probably because he amped the stakes up a bit too high. The narrator has to save one girl to prevent the end of the world. This just feels a bit too hysterical. You should generally try to work your way up to something like that; start out by saving a city or something. Starting out by preventing all out war between heaven and hell; what's left for the second book. More than that, it shows a certain lack of confidence in the strength of your characters; as I've said before, get the characters right and ending THEIR world is stakes enough for the reader. In part, I think it has to be the whole end of everything so as to keep the narrator's actions seeming proportional and relatively moral. Consider Jack Bauer, who spent eight hard working days torturing and killing everyone he met in order to stave off ever more baroque disasters. Sure, he was doing wicked things, but just look at how much more wicked his adversaries were. If Jack had been cutting people's heads off because he needed to make an overtime budget balance, it would have been so much harder to root for him. Something similar may have been driving Holm to forget that his character would work so much better if he stayed resolutely low-rent. 

Holm also has the misfortune to be working - on purpose - in a hell of a tough room. His next two books have titles which pastiche the sacred Raymond Chandler, and if you want to step up to that plate, you'd better be bringing one hell of a prose style. Holm doesn't seem to have that yet. Very few people do, of course, but he's going to need to work a lot harder in the coming books. 

Finally, there's the nature of evil. Once you wander over into the whole notion of the battle between good and evil, you're in a world of trouble with motivation. Yee-haw is not a foreign policy and bwahaha is not an operational principle. Evil is a hard thing to put on the page, because at some level we all know that most evil is the unwelcome side effect of something that makes perfect sense to a guy who's just looking after his own interests. Just as few kids want to be undertakers or dentists when they're growing up, few of us get out of bed in the morning primed to do something wicked for the sheer hell of it. So when you populate half the page with cackling demons, there's a problem. Either they're loons, which is easy, if boring, or they have sensible motivations, in which case, there has to be some pay off for them in ripping stuff up and making people miserable. And Holm never really succeeds in explaining what that pay-off might be. He chucks a hell of a lot of stuff at the page to distract the reader, but as things glide slowly to a "to be continued" the problem bubbles right back up again. Everything is serial novels these days, and I keep reading the first one and not coming back for more; this could be yet another in that sequence.

Weirdly, it's presented with exactly the layout and formatting of the old Pelican non-fiction imprint of Penguin books, and I still don't know why that design decision was taken.

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