Review: John Shirley - Doyle After Death
John Shirley, Doyle After Death (2013 Witness Impulse, $6.99 pb, 341pp, 978-0-06-30500-8)
Nick Fogg is a private detective in more or less present-day Las Vegas when he dies from misadventure. He comes to find himself on a beach in an afterworld and, after being greeted by the lovely Fiona, makes his way into the town of Garden Rest where he meets a guy who soon becomes a friend, along with a couple of guys who don't, a bartender who wants to make sure he's good people, a boardinghouse owner, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Yes, that Doyle. And, while a variety of people have died and come to Garden Rest (one of the many places in this plane, which is one of many planes of existence) over the eons and many have departed once more to other planes, there is a 19th/turn-of-20th Century English tone to much of Garden Rest, though it is mixed with traces of other things.
Naturally, it turns out that one of the dead people, Morgan Harris, has been murdered (yes, people can be "deformulated" in the afterlife) and Doyle and Fogg team up as a post-mortem Holmes and Watson to solve the case.
John Shirley is primarily a science fiction and horror writer but here turns his hand to fantasy (and mystery) and the SF flavors it by making it a more concrete and rational afterworld than many might be and the horror flavors it by occasionally producing good frissons of creepiness but it is a remarkably sedate and gentlemanly book from the often vigorous and violent Shirley. Though mostly rational, it's often a whimsical rationality. One of the most enjoyable aspects is exemplified in the early part of the book when Fogg is still getting his bearings, though already investigating the case. He's asking the mayor, Chauncey, about Harris.
"Was he living with anyone here? Housemates, spouse, anyone like that?"
"No, he was a friendly chap but he had solitary habits. Obsessed with his work. Tramping around, trying to talk to the trees - claims to have had some manner of conversation with the trees. Might have been his imagination, however. Never heard of Garden Rest's plants talking. The birds, of course - and the occasional dog. Heard a horse make a remark once. But trees? No. Just as well - wouldn't care for it, I don't think. Unsettling."
The sort of horror comes out in places such as the depiction of a "psychic storm" which straddles chapters "Seventh" and "Eighth" when Doyle announces:
"...Ah, here is the storm right on schedule."
He nodded towards the window - which began rattling in its frame.
Something outside was rattling the window. Not the wind, though the wind was in fact rising. It was the thing's grip on the frame that rattled it.
Something with a hollow-eyed face was shaking the window...
[Chapter break to enhance the antici... pation.]
The elongated visage, eyeless and suffering, disintegrated under pressure from another, quite distinct face, the way a form in flowing paint is pushed out of shape when another color is poured into the mix. The rounder face with owlish eyes, replacing the first, was quickly pressed aside by several others: human shapes with streaming hair, men and women and mixed gender, some faces well defined and some only sketches. Some looked directly at us; others didn't seem to see us, and shattered themselves against the windowpane.
They sang, with some occasional harmony but mostly discord - they were the dissonant choir. Some of them looked fairly happy, or at least pleasantly distracted; a good many others seemed to be grieving, endlessly grieving...
The weakness of this book is primarily three-fold, with possibly some secondary minor problems. Some or all of the following should strongly apply to the mystery: it should have someone we care about be the victim; we should be drenched in a paranoid air where it could be anyone; we either hate or love many of the suspects; we feel invested in whodunnit; the crime should be very cleverly done and/or solved. It's not that any of this is utterly absent but it's only present in trace amounts. (Also, I can't get into it in detail but one of the keys would probably not escape many conversant with the Holmes canon.) That might not matter as much since the real focus is actually two-fold. On the one hand, it's on Doyle's relationship with his wives (sequential on earth but both present in the afterlife), the first being the one living with him but the second, elsewhere in that plane, perhaps holding a greater claim on his heart. On the other, it's on Fogg's relationship with his life Before and his self-opinion, especially as it is colored by a particular act in that life. The problems with each of these is that there's nothing as surprising or revelatory or transcendent as one might hope for. Again, not that it's not good and reasonable but it's only in trace amounts. Secondary to these three are the possibility that Shirley (being very American) doesn't "do" the English thing right or that his treatment of the historical Doyle might not be entirely "spot on" but, being very American, myself, and not conversant with the historical Doyle, I noticed nothing wrong.
There's another element that is not a weakness but is an irony related to the book's strength: I loved the tone or mood, and enjoyed the setting and so many of the characters so much that I actually wanted much more of them. I think this would make a great TV series. Not a movie, because that would be relatively short and not a book series because there are too many of those and much of this book is particularly visual anyway. I'd like to see it drawn out and gotten into in more depth and detail. I can see a Joss Whedonesque "found family" and "dramedy" to this that would be great fun. And, of course, it's not all "fun" in the sense that it brings to mind that we may not get the same chance these fictional fantasy characters do - and few would believe we would in the same way - so it might be wise to try to get it right the first time.
In sum, I don't know that this is a great and deathless book (so to speak), but it's a good and very enjoyable one and I recommend it.