Thursday, October 8

Dead to Me - Anton Strout

Simon Canderous has only recently turned from using his gift of psychometry - the ability to divine the history of an object through touch - from larcenous to legal. Now a junior member of New York City's covert Department of Extraordinary Affairs, he has attended seminars and read brochures about managing paranormal occurrences. However, when entering the DEA's front, the Lovecraft Cafe and movie house, Simon doesn't notice what his mentor Connor Christos realises immediately - that the lovely woman seated near the counter is actually a ghost. More importantly, Simon's ill-prepared for the consequences when he and Connor try to uncover why Irene is still on this plane.
The premise of this book was so promising, and the jacket blurb so entertaining, that Dead to Me is one of the very few books I've bought this year. I have to confess that I thought of Lynn as soon as I saw the word "psychometry," as she wrote an entertaining novel with psychometry as a hook for NaNoWriMo one year.
Sadly I found the execution profoundly disappointing. Part of this was the world building - I couldn't overcome my disbelief that an organisation like Strout's DEA wouldn't more thoroughly train its agents before letting them in the field. More than that , though, the writing style didn't appeal to me. And, as is sometimes the case, this meant even things that would have amused me if read elsewhere irritated me.
Dead to Me is heavy on the geographic detail, in a way we've commented on
unfavourably in other reviews. From one paragraph:
I jumped in a cab and headed down town. Thirteen minutes later, the cab dropped me off at West 18th and University and I headed across Washington Square Park... I came across a small crowd of drunken late night tourists fleeing toward Union Square... a clamour of footsteps and the crash of metal came from the alley between Sixth and Seventh...
Enough, already - plot please! Which I found a lot - reams of unnecessary information (like a scene with a disapproving waiter in a diner) that serve neither to develop character nor advance the plot. I would have preferred the novel had these chunks been replaced by background. Or character development or plot advancement, of course.
From time to time 'amusing' titles of the seminars and pamphlets that serve as Simon's training are leadenly dropped into the text - examples include "Deadside Manner: Staying Cool in Troubled Times" and "Clairvoyance or Clair-annoyance: You've Either Got it or You Don't". I suspect the intent was to parody the way office policies exist even in exotic organisations - this has been achieved admirably by Stross but fell flat here, at least for me.
I even found myself annoyed by the grammar, albeit only on one occasion - spot the unnecessary punctuation:
"Thanks," he said, circling carefully around the phantasm.
"Thanks?!?" I asked. "For what? I ought to be thanking you!"*
Of course, by this stage many things were annoying me, so that the 'amusing' title of Inspectre for the head of paranormal affairs (get it, get it?) grated more every time I read it, the misuse of 'object permanence' glared, and the reference to donning a black leather duster being a reflection of watching all five seasons of Angel in a single sitting made me wonder where he found the 72 consecutive hours or so that this would take.
The biggest issue for me, though, was the unclear nature of Simon's talent/gift. He seems to have made no effort to refine or hone it, and neither did DEA before sending him out in the field, leaving it to Connor to first suggest the concept. Reading objects leaves him hypoglycemic and exhausted, relying on Lifesavers to refuel, but sometimes he's drained by one reading and sometimes he can touch multiple things without fatigue, with no explanation given of why this is. He guards against accidental reading by wearing gloves, and has an inner sanctum in his apartment that has been carefully designed to be free of emotional echoes - the furniture is untouched by human hands, and the whole room is white (a presumably restful colour for Simon, though this is never specified). When his apartment is turned over, Simon is devastated:
my inner sanctum had been contaminated by someone else's memories, corrupting the one place in the world I could turn to as my safety zone. I had never felt so violated.
My first question is how everywhere else is so defiled when Simon needs to touch things to read them - and presumably touch with his hands, as I didn't notice any accidental readings caused by objects brushing past other exposed skin, or precautions like wearing long sleeves. More importantly, though, is the fact that Simon has no need to use his sanctum at any point in the novel - like the best china, it's tucked away for a special occasion but never actually needed, which seems like a massive waste of valuable space in the tight and expensive New York real estate market.

I have no doubt that Dead to Me is the first in a series, and see from Amazon that a sequel is out. Although I found the premise fresh and promising, the execution was so disappointing I have no intention of following up. Lynn is enthusiastic about reading the novel, though I've suggested she either skip reading this review until after or tucks the book away until time has faded her memory of it. In any case, another opinion will follow at some stage, and as we don't always see eye to eye it may be more favourable than this one. - Alex
* The grammar referred to would be the "?!?" - rarely seen outside the internet and letters written by adolescent girls, which is the way I like it


Anton Strout said...

Sorry to hear it was not to your liking.

Alex and Lynn Ward said...

Thank you for coming by - we always like to hear from authors. I hope Lynn will enjoy it more than I did, and I see you already have quite a following. Best of luck with your future works - Alex