Deader Still is the sequel to Dead to Me and is the second entry in Anton Strout’s series of paranormal action-comedies starring the psychometric hero Simon Canderous. While I had quibbles about two of the characterizations, I found myself enjoying this tightly plotted and faster-paced sequel much more than the original.
The novel opens several months after the events of Dead to Me. Simon is still working under the tutelage of his hard-boiled partner Connor in the Department of Extraordinary Affairs (DEA) while also working under the aegis of the Fraternal Order of Goodness (the FOGies). As the old saying goes, no dog can serve two masters and this dual focus begins causing friction between him and his mentor in the DEA. Simon is in his first long-term relationship; psychometry can make relationships…difficult…to say the least. His girlfriend, Jane, is a former employee of the evil Sectarian Defense League (hey, a girl has to make a living and they did have a good benefit plan…). She works for the DEA in the division of Lesser and Greater Arcana which is headed by Simon’s workplace nemesis, Thaddeus Wesker. Jane and Wesker seem to be hitting it off rather nicely—which, of course, pushes all of Simon’s buttons, much to Wesker’s delight. On top of this, an unwelcome blast from Simon’s criminal past comes back in the form of a sociopathic art thief named Mina who is pressuring him to help her with one last heist. Now add the (possibly) first vampire incursion to Manhattan in 737 days and the fact that someone is apparently out to kill Simon by sabotaging an oubliette. As you can see, Strout has compiled quite the whirlwind ride of an adventure for our mystically hands-on hero.
And a whirlwind it is. The pacing of this novel is breakneck. All the fat has been trimmed from the story making for a very tight plot. Strout also spices his prose with lots of pop culture references (and I do love me some pop culture references). Among my favorites are the fact that Jane’s last name is “Clayton-Forrester” (a nice nod to us MST3K geeks) and his use of one of my favorite lines from The Blues Brothers (“I hate Illinois gypsies…”). As in the first novel, Strout introduces all kinds of pamphlets and courses that your typical DEA agent needs to stay on top of dealing with the paranormal (“The Truth About Gated Communities: Ghost Dancing and Ancient Indian Burial Grounds”). One of the complaints I had about the first novel was that I felt that the author hadn’t quite balanced all of the elements that comprised the tone of the book; it felt a bit disjointed. Strout has found that balance in this second novel, making for a brisk, fun, read.
As I said in my review of the first novel, “The one thing you can count on is that Simon will overreact”. This is as true in the new book as it was in the old. In and of itself, it’s fine. People, even heroes, have flaws and this just happens to be Simon’s. My problem comes from the fact that it pushes me one step away from completely empathizing with the main character. He reminds me a lot of the Ben Affleck character in the movie “Chasing Amy”. He’s a likeable guy. He’s a good guy. But you just know that he’s going to open his mouth and say something completely stupid that’s going to ruin everything. Simon-as-narrator knows this…I just wish Simon-as-character would get with the program. But, I admit, this is probably more my problem than a problem with the book.
My other criticism stems from the treatment that Jane gets from Simon. As previously stated, Jane used to work for the bad guys. Simon seems to be constantly on the look-out for evil tendencies from his girlfriend as a result. Now, this is perfectly legitimate in the context of her newfound abilities in technomancy (Simon aptly refers to one incident as being a little “sixth season Willow”). However, too often, any negative emotion she demonstrates as a character seems to be written off to her “evil tendencies”. At one point she’s about to face off with Mina, who has put Simon in an extremely perilous situation. Also, due to various plot points, Jane feels no small amount of justifiable jealousy about Mina’s connection to Simon. She calls the woman a “bitch” and Simon, shocked at her language, seems to think her evil side is about to be unleashed. Another reading, a more reasonable one, is that she’s simply reacting like any normal person would do in the situation. I found Simon’s attitude in this irksome; though it may prove to be an interesting source of conflict later in his and Jane’s relationship.
Deader Still ends on a bit of a cliffhanger involving Connor’s search for his long-lost brother. My hope is that Dead Matter, the recently released third novel in the series, will build on the improvements of this second adventure and resolve its dangling conclusion. I’m looking forward to following Simon, despite all his flaws, into his next set of largely self-inflicted predicaments.