The Wrong Dead Guy, by Richard Kadrey (Harper Voyager 978-0062389572, $24.99, 432pp, hardcover February 28, 2017
Richard Kadrey’s newest novel is a fast-arriving—and fast-paced, fast-talking, fast-flummoxing—sequel to 2016’s The Everything Box. In reviewing that series debut for the Barnes & Noble Review, I said in part: “The novel is gonzo, ribald, hilarious, zippy and innovative with its magical apparatus and tricks. If Donald Westlake had been a dilettante follower of Satanist Anton LaVey, humanity might have previously been gifted with such a book. Or if Jack Benny’s under-regarded film The Horn Blows at Midnight were remade by the Coen Brothers, a similar funhouse ride might ensue.”
Is it possible for Kadrey to strike gold twice? Let’s see!
At the close of the last adventure, our freelance thief, Charlie “Coop” Cooper, specialist in purloining the outré and uncanny, congenitally immune to most magics, had succeeded in thwarting the apocalypse. All well and good, although saving civilization proved not to be particularly lucrative. And in doing so, he had come to the attention of the Department of Peculiar Science, a classified agency whose remit overlapped his skills and interests. More or less forced to work for them, or face jail time, along with his partner Morty, Coop at least has the incentive that Giselle, now a fellow operative, has again become his lover. But that barely suffices to cover his annoyance with Woolrich, his demanding boss.
Now Woolrich has a fresh and lame assignment for Coop and team. Steal a low-rent Egyptian mummy—named Harkhuf—from a second-rate museum: the Brian Z. Pierson Museum of Art, Antiquities, and Folderol. It’s hardly worthy of Coop’s skills, but he irritably gets with the program. And this is where the trouble starts. Harkhuf proves to be sentient and maliciously alive. He is on a quest for his ancient mummy inamorata, Shemetet. Once they are reunited, they plan to conquer the world.
But not all of this is apparent to Coop and company at the outset. So they bumble through the seemingly inconsequential job, with Coop acquiring a curse from Harkhuf that results in such unpalatable demands as being summoned from his home by the mummy, while clad in only his Star Wars underwear, and giving the whole neighborhood a lingering glimpse of his naked butt.
Outside Coop’s inner circle of pals and co-workers, there are a half-dozen other troupes of farcical players, whom Kadrey intercuts into the main narrative, before finally blending all the subplots together in a milkshake of madness. There’s a group of rich kids who fancy themselves to be eco-terrorists. There’s an elderly faded fortune-teller named Minerva—looking like “Stevie Nicks’s stunt double”—and her buddy Kellar, who want in on the supernatural mummy action. Down in the mailroom of DOPS, Nelson—a mook or zombie with a grudge against Coop—is plotting his own rebellion, while abusing his assistant McCloud. Sheriff Wayne Jr. is busy making auteur-style commercials for his car lot, where the climax of the book will occur. Froehlich, head of security at the Pierson museum, has managed to become enthralled to Harkhuf, and is serving as his mortal catspaw, while introducing the mummy to the wonders of South American TV game shows. Vengeful DOPS auditors Night and Knight are on the track of missing office supplies. And down in the Extra-Confidential Inscrutabilis Unit of DOPS, buddies Vargas and Zulawski are about to undergo some very chilling manifestations.
This tornado-cum-whirlpool of comedic insanity blends together into a very satisfactory and surprising escapade. Kadrey juggles everything like a six-armed master, dovetailing all the loose bits you swear could not be connected.
The first thing to mention when comparing this novel to its predecessor is the nature of its novum: here, classic, as opposed to revolutionary in The Everything Box. The first book’s occult MacGuffin was more devious and unprecedented than this book’s Universal-Monsters-style Egyptian revenant. Given the spate of mummy movies within recent memory, from the Brendan Fraser franchise to The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec and a Tom Cruise mummy reboot for 2017, one might at first be a tad dismayed that Kadrey did not center his tale on a less well-handled trope. But as Rudy Rucker famously says, such immemorial ideas are “power chords” that allow each new writer to riff according to his or her muse. A handy armature for tale-telling.
And so once the reader has acclimatized himself or herself to that conceptual hurdle, we find four major aspects to savor.
There is the acidic social commentary. Set in Los Angeles, the book is replete with instances of all the cultural detritus of La La Land. Much as Ron Goulart itemized and savaged California of the 1960s in his classic fiction (albeit by casting the contemporary stuff into a near-future setting), so Kadrey takes the piss out of the zany customs of his home state. And he remains always topical. “Ramsey Fitzgerald’s life was the rags-to-riches story of a man who started out with only a few hundred million dollars of family money and managed to turn it into even more hundreds of millions by sheer force of will, insider trading, and blackmail, a formula he referred to in his autobiography as the ‘Torquemada Reach Around.’”
Then there is the classic screwball comedy. Kadrey has a gift for staging improbable disasters and cascades of events involving elephants, specters, malicious mice and a dozen other components. The improbable ridiculousness of it all evokes much laughter. “A team of six people stripped Coop down and covered him from head to toe in a clear gel so that he could squeeze into a skintight carbon-fiber suit that made him feel less like a secret government agent and more like a bratwurst having second thoughts about his life choices, his sanity, and whether he would be able to keep down those chili cheese fries he’d eaten earlier.”
Third on the list of enjoyments are the character portraits and interactions. All these folks are as unique and quirky as real humans, and their prickly dealings with each other are as far from genteel and politically correct as possible. I have not yet even mentioned Dr. Lupinsky, who resides in a mobile mecha framework encasing an antique TV whose screen manifests the good doctor’s avatar: a winsome cat.
Lastly, and possibly the biggest attraction of the book, is the sheer language. Like S. J. Perelman writing for the Marx Brothers, combined with Raymond Chandler’s propensity for over-the-top similes and metaphors, Kadrey’s language pops off the page, whether as dialogue or description. There’s a handful of quotable sentences on every page. “Nelson began to recite a language that sounded like someone trying to plunger out a toilet full of creamed corn… Coop said a word that was just as odd as the ones in Nelson’s recitation, only Coop’s word sounded like someone dropping unripe watermelons down a spiral staircase.”
Before closing my review of this absurdly entertaining and entertainingly absurd urban fantasy on that note, let me just highlight the employment of that adjective “spiral.” Not just any old staircase, but a spiral staircase. That’s the true touch of a genius.