Dead Man Walking
Eerie River Publishing
I will always have a soft spot for the occult detective subgenre – I’ve always been a fan of classic hardboiled detectives like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade; but throw in some occult and mystical elements to blend in with the hard-drinking, barely-sleeping, two-fisted private eye protagonist and you can’t keep me away. I’m not sure exactly what it is about the subgenre that keeps bringing me back, but it certainly attracts high-quality authors – from veterans like Josh Reynolds and William Meikle, to newcomers like Paul Leone – who make the stories well worth reading. So when author David Green contacted the blog and offered me a copy of his Occult Detective novella Dead Man Walking – with its superb piece of cover art and a back-cover blurb talking about a PI who died and came back to life in order to earn his way back into heaven, I was completely hooked. Especially when the author’s brief introduction highlighted that this was actually the extended and ‘preferred’ version that hadn’t been possible to release previously – I’m a big fan of seeing authors release expanded and improved versions of titles to see how they work when the writer has been allowed sufficient time and space to achieve what they really wanted.
A brief but intriguing prologue sets the overarching tone of the novella, in which protagonist Nick Holleran describes how he died in a hail of bullets and began ascending to heaven, only for the intervention of a complete stranger and then a team of paramedics bringing him back from the brink of ascending to heaven. Having to deal with the soul-shattering knowledge that Heaven exists but he’s been prevented from going to it is bad enough for the PI, but then Holleran discovers that his out-of-body experience has led to some changes in his life – and not just the crippling medical bills. You see, it turns out that Holleran can now see the dead, lingering grey ghosts all around him; there’s even one hanging about in the corner of his office, sans eyes, caked in blood and ever-silent. And that’s not even mentioning the arrival of Charon, ferryman of the dead, who tells Holleran that he should be dead, and that he’ll ‘see him around’. It’s a hell of an introduction – pun most certainly intended – and Green delivers it with style, panache and a huge amount of energy that means you’re swept along with Holleran as he navigates this new Hell on Earth that he now inhabits. Now, five years later, Holleran continues his work as a PI, figuring that if he helps out people like himself, and maybe some of the dead himself, then the big guy up top will take him in once he actually does die. His latest client is a mysterious, heavily-scarred woman who’s being stalked – by the ghost of her husband who passed away weeks ago. The husband who was high up in the city’s organised crime – and also the husband who briefly killed Holleran. It’s a Hell of a case that the PI can’t help but take despite himself – and he soon finds himself struggling to stop his past destroying his present – and his heavenly future.
Green takes to the occult detective genre with a passion and energy that I haven’t seen in quite some time, and rapidly demonstrates that he has a knack for writing in the genre that is able to take well-worn stereotypes and imbue them with a vibrancy that resuscitates them and makes them colorful and interesting again. Dead Man Walking is a thoroughly streamlined genre story, a thoroughbred horse that gracefully moves the overarching narrative forward without any padding or extraneous sub-plots that would distract the reader or dilute the story’s energy. I particularly appreciated that we skipped the inevitable – and often highly cliched – section where Holleran would become accustomed to his ability to see the dead and what it means both for himself and the world around him. We’ve seen this far too many times in the genre, and is rather akin to the origins story for Spider-Man – deftly bypassing it allows Green to get straight to the action, and the meat of the narrative, that forms the bulk of the novella. The worldbuilding in Dead Man Walking is absolutely first-rate, once again done with a subtlety that’s greatly appreciated and creates a world that feels lived-in and subsequently welcoming to the reader. And while Green does streamline the occult detective narrative and boil it down to its core essences, he also innovates by introducing some intriguing concepts as the story progresses. To take just one example, there’s the notion of Strengthening, where a spirit that hasn’t ascended to Heaven or dissipated eventually becomes aware of its post-flesh existence and becomes determined – and powerful – enough to shake off the confusion of death and begin enjoying the liberation of not being shackled to a mortal corpse. While this sort of thing has been seen a lot throughout occult detective stories, Green’s Strengthening concept is particularly well-described and efficiently put together, and just the sort of thing that will benefit from further expansion in longer stories.
In addition, there’s some brilliant characterization to be found in Dead Man Walking that complements the high-quality prose and great world-building. The main cast of the novella are all vibrant and lively characters that manage to simultaneously own and often transcend their trope-bound roles Holleran is a delightfully efficient and darkly witty protagonist who effortlessly drags you the slick and breezy narrative, and also possesses a certain open honesty and bluntness that’s pleasing in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Michelle Wheeler – the femme fatale role – is nicely rounded out with a few tricks up her sleeves, and her spirit-bound husband makes for a suitably chilling antagonist for much of the story. There are also some great minor characters – a feisty bartender running a bar that caters to the living, dead and supernatural alike; a Nephilim – a fallen angel – who burns the eyes just to look at them; and a devil with an eternal grudge against Holleran. They all deftly flesh out the backstory of the world and make it feel much more engaging as a result – often in the occult detectuve genre, minor/secondary characters are little more than cardboard cutouts meant to be knocked over by the protagonist in the course of the narrative, but once again Green demonstrates his affinity with the genre and skill as a writer to break out of that particular dead-end.
Dead Man Walking is one of the most impressive Occult Detective stories I’ve read in quite some time, and a highly effective debut in the genre from author David Green, who uses skillful prose, powerful characterization and an innate understanding of the core concepts of the genre to create a fast-paced, action-packed and thoroughly entertaining piece of fiction. Dead Man Walking is the Occult Detective genre stripped down to its bare essentials, a lean and muscular narrative that relentlessly drives itself forward without any excessive padding or extraneous sub-plots, and is an exemplar title that should be endlessly studied by Green’s fellow authors in the genre. I absolutely cannot wait to get to reading the next tale in the series – The Devil Walks in Blood – and can guarantee that David Green is now actively on my radar as an author to follow with a keen eye and great interest