Like noir? Like horror? Have you met Sandman Slim?
Richard Kadrey is a true storyteller, with writing that is rich and dynamic, effortless to read and is always full of energy and humor — not what you might expect from a writer of sometimes terrifying supernatural noir.
“Sandman Slim” is a series Kadrey has been working on for the last nine years, with the tenth book, “Hollywood Dead,” released at the end of the last month. Based in Los Angeles (with an occasional foray into the depths of hell), the narrative sees the protagonist James Stark returning from an 11-year excursion as the only living person in Hades. With a reputation as the “monster who kills monsters,” Stark originally returned to investigate/avenge his girlfriend’s murder and hunt down those who cast him to the underworld. Since then, he’s been getting in the way of the many monsters trying to bring an end to Los Angeles.
He’s a fast-talking, wise-cracking, half-angel vigilante with a penchant for stealing cars and chain-smoking Maledictions (the number one cigarette in hell). The character-driven series reads like a supernatural hard-boiled noir detective story with a dry, sardonic humor and its fair share of gore-filled action. The first book in the series is currently getting the Hollywood treatment, (not without some irony given the occasional Hollywood-bashing the books provide) with “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski recently signed on to helm the movie adaption.
Any of the “Sandman Slim” series can be read as a stand-alone book, and “Hollywood Dead” is no exception, although readers of the previous books are rewarded with mentions of recurring characters and past story arcs. This novel does feel quite fresh though, acting like a reset of the series in some ways.
We begin “Hollywood Dead” with Stark having been summoned back to the mortal coil by evil power-broker Illuminati types known as Wormwood. The worst half of Wormwood have split to do even more evil things and the less-evil half make a deal: Prevent a citywide apocalypse, and they’ll make Stark’s return to L.A. permanent. In the meantime, he’s only half-alive and his reanimated body has an expiration date of just a few days. To help him out, he’s been given access to the room of thirteen doors — a key that allows him to slip into a shadow and instantly appear anywhere in the world (or underworld) where another shadow exists. The odds are stacked against him, though, and if he can’t stop the mysterious, powerful enemy, it might just be the beginning of the end.
Previous books have often shown Stark to be a powerful figure with an almost godlike ability, fighting angels and demons alike. The problem with this approach is that each story has to see bigger, more powerful enemies with bigger, more dramatic dangers or else feel inferior to the last. “Hollywood Dead” acts as a reset. This time, the danger is much more personal, focusing on those people Stark cares about, while our once-powerful protagonist begins to literally fall apart at the seams.
One of the things I really love about these books is how much care and attention the author puts into his characters. Each is a wonderfully flawed creation that mimics the best and worst parts of ourselves. Stark is such a creature, a product of his environment who has been bashing and smashing his way through problems with an internal duality of monster and man. He’s been trying to figure out just who he is and what space he fits into in L.A. Ultimately, he represents the unrepentant warrior, fighting the good fight in his own flawed fashion with a strong moral compass under all the wise-cracking and violence.
His last year in hell (where the previous book in the series was set) seems to have provided some much needed perspective. Stark is more contemplative but with an emotional turmoil because all his friends will have moved on and be leading happy, fulfilled lives without him. It’s an interesting examination of loss and how people deal with it.
There is this boundless, almost chaotic energy to the book — the story moving forward at a blistering pace with plenty of twists and turns. It does sag ever so slightly in the middle, although it does pick up, and the ending is highly rewarding. The prose is smooth, modern and almost faultless, with some wonderfully descriptive, dynamic action scenes. It’s the little touches that really set the book apart though, the mentions of old, classic films, the way the author brings the City of Angels to life and nods to the classic L.A. detective Philip Marlowe.
Packed with humor, “Hollywood Dead” is effortlessly entertaining, rewarding, demon-filled fiction that manages to hide a few more serious messages amongst all the fun.
Antony Jones is a writer in England and editor of sfbook.com.
Harper Voyager: 368 pp., $26.99