Simon Canderous is a rookie investigator with the New York City D.E.A. (Department of Extraordinary Affairs). This is an officially off-the-record department that handles all of the paranormal crime in the city. Simon’s gift is psychometry: by touching objects he can divine things about their histories and the people that have handled them. The curse of this ability is that it can (and does) introduce a whole new angle to the phenomenon of TMI. He had been using his powers as a petty criminal, defrauding people in the both the above-board and underground (who knew?) antiques business. Now he looks to make up for his criminal ways by fighting Evil.
The tone of this book constantly shifts from being a straightforward urban fantasy to an outright satire/send-up of the genre, and back again. Many books of this ilk are essentially adventures with some comedic asides; comedic either due to the wit of the characters or the absurdity of the situation. Strout inserts actual Comedy: jokes, punny names, sitcom-like set-ups with punchlines, etc. For example, one running gag involves the numerous seminars and pamphlets available to DEA agents. Some of the titles are quite clever and it was a good overall gag (reminding me a bit of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams). The leading supervisors of the department are Inspectres (ba-dump-CHING). There is an actual Things That Go Bump in the Night division. Lurking in the background is a secret society of the “old school” warriors of Good known as the Fraternal Order of Goodness (aka FOGies), and so on. Much is made of the issues that arise when fighting Evil becomes a bureaucratic function of city government. Then, jarringly, the book would take a turn into serious action and characterization. While I applaud the effort to defy pigeonholing, it left me feeling that the author wasn’t sure of his tone, which is a problem.
Simon is a likable hero with a sympathetic voice. However, most of the action in the book is propelled by his inability to have a reasonable reaction to any situation. The one thing you can count on is that Simon will overreact. This is a legitimate character flaw, but I’m hoping that in future adventures he learns from these mistakes or that this trait will be less of a catalyst for the conflict.
Despite these issues, I did enjoy the book and am mildly curious about the next (“Deader Still“). The action is well-paced and the characters are likable. The author has given himself a lot of good bits to play with here: the premise is smart and there are plenty of opportunities for some interesting things to happen. “Dead to Me” is a good first-effort with room for improvement.