Already Dead (Joe Pitt, #1)
Recommended for: Fans of seriously dark, gritty, violent noir who won't mind the style
There's a certain stereotype about the streets of New York City. To non-City-dwellers, the phrase can conjure a claustrophobic skyline blocked with lowering buildings and blinding lights, anonymous figures studiously avoiding eye contact as they rush past each other on the sidewalks, seething masses of pedestrians pouring onto the streets at random to the furious honks of stultified drivers, and snobby natives glaring at gaping tourists. Basically, the stereotyped New York is a place where people on the streets don't see each other as human. In Joe Pitt's NYC, "inhuman" is a pretty good description.
Unbeknownst to the ordinary Muggles, the Big Apple is partitioned into various factions of feuding Vampyres (nope, not a spelling error), from the all-too-powerful Coalition to the faux-Marxist Society to the disturbingly ascetic Enclave. Despite his disease, Joe Pitt has managed to live outside of the vampyric social structure, but at a cost: when one of the clans asks for a favour, it's not an optional request. So when the Coalition boss tells him to look into a plague-spreading zombie, he's can't exactly say no, despite complications from a missing child case he's undertaken for a beautiful high-society wife. Unsurprisingly, his quest leads him into the darkest corners of the seedy underbelly of the city.
In terms of tone, Already Dead reads like standard pulp--you know, where a sultry dame floats into the PI's office on long, lovely legs that reach all the way up to her skirt and luscious, pouting lips as red as red lipstick, etc, etc. She begs him with a delicate quaver in her voice for his help to find her darling missing child, and, amazingly enough, things turn out to be more complicated than they appear. I like pulp, but certain aspects of this didn't work for me. Although I found it compulsively readable, my first irritation was a couple of stylistic choices. For unknown reasons, Huston decided to use em-dashes (--) instead of quotation marks (") to delineate dialogue. I found it surprisingly jarring and difficult to follow, although I was amused by the complications this induced in a three-way conversation. My second stylistic issue was with Vampyrism and its Vyrus. I strongly associate "vampyres" with Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum, where "Vampyres are just the same [as vampires], the only real difference being they can't spell properly."
Part of the problem might just be that I read this at the wrong time. I just finished Stray Souls, where the protagonist tends to offer self-help advice to her increasingly bemused allies and enemies. As I waded through Already Dead, a little Sharon-Li-demon kept popping up in my head with suggestions like, "Mr Pitt, have you tried aromatherapy? I've heard it really helps with stress" or "Mr Pitt, have you thought about evening classes?" It did not help me to stay in the noir mood. Around halfway through the book, I finally managed to stifle my inner Sharon, and swiftly discovered that very little in the book distracts from the unrelenting violence, brutality, and sheer evil. I'm an escapist reader. This place--this set of characters--this world--is one I'd want to escape from, not to. Not only was Pitt's world as dingy as they come, but much of the careless violence stemmed from the protagonist. For example, take his reaction to a kid who figures out he's a vampire after Joe manages to convince him otherwise:
He was pretty embarrassed, ended up crying on my shoulder. I gave him a pat on the butt, told him to see a doctor or something and sent him on his way.
Then I followed him to his flop, broke into his room after he was asleep, bled him dry in the bathtub, and made it look like suicide. Guys like that kid are dangerous and you can't let them run around causing trouble.
Every time I thought I began to connect with Joe, something like this happened. I understand that the whiplash from human empathy to callous savagery was intentional and accentuated the noir effect; I just found it incredibly difficult to read. I like tarnished heroes, sure, but not when they're fully oxidized.
I wish I could have warmed to these books more, because the worldbuilding was fascinating. I especially loved the members of the Society, from the terrifyingly hypocritical Terry to the lovably bearlike Hurley. Unsurprisingly, my favourite character was the belligerently feminist lesbian vampyre Lydia. However, even there, I found some troubling inconsistencies. For example, at one point, she castigates a member of her team, saying,
"If you say girl, chick, lady, bitch, cocksucker, fag, lesbo, dyke, queer, or c-nt one more time, not only am I going to beat the sperm out of you, I'm going to have a couple of shemale Vamps I know find you in an alley some night and open your back door. Wide."
That's right. She responds to sexist, rape-culture epithets by threatening to have the perpetrator sodomized. If you're willing to give Huston the benefit of the doubt, then it adds a touch of hypocrisy to Lydia's character. Personally, it felt to me that the threat was supposed to be humorous and that the hypocrisy never even occurred to Huston.
As a mystery story, the plot is functional; you will immediately guess at least part of the plot --I was slightly irritated by honest-not-a-zombie-Horde and his biochemical laboratory. Talk about an obvious plot point. In a mystery, you probably shouldn't name your antagonists by their roles. ], but there is sufficient conspiracy and indirection to keep it interesting. As the plot tips more and more towards tragedy, the graphic, sexualised violence began to take its toll on me. The scene at the end was just unnecessarily vivid. When authors begin to portray things that vividly, I start wondering if they are in some sense intended to be titillating. I was also extremely disappointed by the conclusion, which left that poor innocent kid getting locked up forever for the zombie deaths. What irritated me wasn't necessarily the kid's fate, which could be part of the gritty plot, but that both Pitt and Huston apparently forgot about him.] Overall, while the unthinking graphic violence made this book a problematic read for me, if you're looking for some action-filled pulp in a a vividly grimy supernatural underworld, look no farther.