'The Wrong Dead Guy' Lives And Dies By Its Comedic Timing
The best thing about Richard Kadrey's Charlie "Coop" Cooper supernatural heist novels is that each one reads like a full season of a goofy, half-hour, slapstick sitcom whose arc centers on all the most horrifying things in the world happening all at once. His books are full of wise-guys and losers, smart-mouth criminals and dirty jokes. The end of the world is always right around the corner, and there's always someone standing there, ready to make a joke.
The worst thing about them? Exactly the same thing.
In the first of the series, sorta-anti-hero Coop is a down-on-his-luck thief, roaming the monster-infested streets of modern-day Los Angeles. He's a talented second-story man with a dry, depressive wit, a whole crowd of unsavory acquaintances and, most importantly, an immunity to all forms of magic — handy since Kadrey's L.A. pretty much drips with the stuff. Not cutesy, elfin magic or the kind practiced by Renaissance Faire enthusiasts either, but serious, dark, dirty and dodgy magic that's as hardboiled as day-old coffee and hot as a stolen pistol.
In the newest, called The Wrong Dead Guy, Coop is pretty much the same, only with one notable difference. He's no longer a freelancer lifting magical doo-dads for money and kicks, but an employee of the Department Of Peculiar Sciences (the magical equivalent of the FBI, LAPD, NSA and every satirical office comedy all wrapped up together), just working for The Man and trying not to get eaten, mauled, cursed or killed as he goes about his daily business.
Business which includes (but is not limited to) bantering with ghosts, stealing a mummy from a failing museum, drinking, breaking into the same museum a second time when the first heist goes wrong (only this time dressed as clowns and traveling with an octopus robot inhabited by the spirit of a dead Egyptologist), and trying to outrun a curse from said mummy when everything that hasn't already gone wrong proceeds to go badly, darkly, quickly and completely wrong as well. The mummy is Harkhuf and he wants what every mummy ever committed to the page or screen has wanted: his lost love brought back to life and the destruction of the world and everything in it. Because mummies are jerks. And Coop has got to stop him. Because that's what heroes do (even the ones who aren't terribly heroic), though, in Kadrey's world, this involves the theft of office supplies, skeleton armies and a borrowed elephant.
Kadrey is a writer who never seems happier (or more furiously focused) than when everything in his imaginary world is falling to pieces and on fire. He elevates office paranoia and dick jokes to an art form. And his L.A., though completely recognizable as our own, is a carnival funhouse filled with hucksters, criminals, psychics, sleazy motels, dimly-lit bars and Saturday matinee movie monsters that watch game shows and crack wise like there's a laugh-track humming in the background.
But that's also where he stumbles. Where his first Coop book found some kind of magical Bizarro World balance between its blissful weirdness, its pedal-down pacing and an honest concern for the characters, The Wrong Dead Guy defuses a large part of the tension with its banter and long blocks of snappy, sit-com dialog. For example, there's this, from the final third of the book. Coop is talking to a ghost in his head named Phil Spectre (get it?).
"There's nowhere for you to go. We're trapped down here."
"What are we going to do?"
"I have a plan."
"Then do it."
"Do it faster."
This all happens in the middle of a three-way monster fight with murderous robots in the basement of DOPS headquarters — a split-second, race-for-the-exits kind of moment. And Kadrey does this all the time.
There's nothing wrong with the style per se — it's one of the hallmarks of the series and one of the joys of diving face-first into anything Kadrey writes. But in Dead Guy, he overuses the schtick by about 1000%. His characters can't eat a waffle or throw a hand grenade without first engaging in a page of flippant back-and-forth about how they're all probably, maybe, almost totally going to die, and soon, like right now, absolutely, if something AMAZING doesn't happen immediately or, you know, sooner, before this thing (monster, mummy, ghost, giant killer robot army) eats/dismembers/murders them all.
It's exhausting. It kills the action. It rips you straight out of the moment with its over-caffeinated (and often pointless) gallows humor. And worst of all, the rat-a-tat clip of it gives almost everyone the same voice — which is unforgivable when, in its less twitchy moments, Dead Guy's characters can all stand confidently on their own as unique and sad-sack snowflakes, beaten down but never beat.
Still, Dead Guy is a riot. It's just plain dangerous fun — like playing drunk in a bouncy castle or running too fast downhill. A bad idea that's just too fun not to try. And in this day and age, when everyone seems so serious about everything, I will give a lot of latitude to a guy like Kadrey who just seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself for his own weird reasons.
The rest of us are just along for the ride.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.