A necromancer on the run from his past. A young woman brutally murdered as bait. A vengeful magician trying to cheat death. A Mexican demigoddess of death with her eye on the necromancer’s soul. Set it in the sorcerous underground of L.A. and you’ve got Dead Things, the follow-up to Stephen Blackmoore’s City of the Lost (which I reviewed here). Chased out of L.A. a dozen years ago, Eric Carter’s a necromantic mercenary, a spell-for-hire who’s put down a lot of bad men in that time. A disconnected phone rings for twenty minutes in his West Texas motel room. When he finally picks it up, it’s news of his sister’s murder. Defying the death sentence on his head should he return to L.A., Carter drives a dead man’s Cadillac back to his home town to find and punish the killers.
Dead Things is loosely set in the same version of L.A. that Blackmoore explored in City of the Lost. Carter’s been gone awhile and, as he asks about wizards he used to know, Blackmoore slips in a nod to the events of Lost. A certain devilish djinn turns up again, ready to help and hinder as before. Blackmoore paints L.A. as only a native son can. Off-the-cuff mentions of intersections and shorthand references to highway traffic give the story a lived-in feeling. The tone becomes uneasily anecdotal, like an old, blind barber’s anecdote as he gives you a straight razor shave. This feeling of hard-knuckled noir anchors the urban fantasy that drives Dead Things.
Blackmoore turns up the fantasy dial in this book. Eric Carter is a very talented prestidigitator, showing facility for both quick-draw lightning spells and elaborate rituals to speak with the dead. He tangles with spell-throwing mooks on several occasions. Little charms and wards abound in Dead Things. Even secondary characters are hustling for a little extra power. The doors to the magical underbelly of L.A. are thrown open. There are times, however, when it feels as though there’s a little too much magic in the air. The right spell is usually available to solve a problem, which drains a little momentum from some scenes. I would have liked to see magic fail Carter once or twice. Like City of the Lost, Dead Things draws on the detective story for its backbone. Unlike Lost, though, Dead Things’ story doesn’t feel as complex. There are fewer twists and reversals in Dead Things that we saw handled so well in Lost.
Blackmoore trades the labyrinthine plot of Lost for something equally interesting: character relationships. As Carter cautiously reconnects with his old L.A. life, an old flame reappears who is rightfully angry and resentful over Carter’s abrupt departure. In several moments between Carter and his old love, Blackmoore writes some honest scenes of wounded resentment and tentative reconciliation. Carter is a more developed character than Joe Sunday in City of the Lost. He struggles with the choices he’s made and his confidence falters. Carter’s ultimately more sympathetic, more human, resulting in a richer story. This is what Blackmoore does well, taking scenes, moments, and characters with familiar shapes and twisting them enough to make them satisfying. Including this soured relationship demonstrates that Blackmoore isn’t a one-trick pony. Using a Sin City analogy, Blackmoore showed us that he can write Marv, the sociopathic enforcer from The Hard Goodbye played by Mickey Rourke, and now he’s showing us his John Hartigan, the honorable cop from That Yellow Bastard played by Bruce Willis.
On top of it all, Dead Things retains the breakneck pace and excitement of City of the Lost. Blackmoore’s trying some new things, but not at the expense of the old. It’s loaded with interesting action sequences, wry one-liners, bravado, and gray morality. In the background of the story lurk a jealous demigoddess of death and a couple of surviving characters that we know we’ll see again. Carter ends the book in more trouble than he started it and I can’t wait to see how he gets out of it. There are eight million ghost stories in the naked city. This hopefully hasn’t been the last of them.