Sunday, March 20, 2011

Indie Book Review: Death Has A Name

Death Has a Name by Jerry Hannel is a lovely bit paranormal mystery.  Several other reviewers of this book claimed they couldn't put it down, and while that wasn't literally true for me, it was as close to being true as I ever get with a book.  

So, what is so wonderful about this little gem?  Brodie Wade. 

There's a term from fan fiction that has crept into the world of original fiction: Mary Sue (or if male, Gary Stu).  A Mary Sue is a character that can do anything.  She's got amazing powers, gorgeous looks, a winning personality, there's no problem she can't solve, and she's probably kind to animals as well.  She's just perfect.  And, she's annoying as hell.  Unfortunately she has a tendency to show up a lot in fantasy because it's just too easy to write a story where Mary Sue has the magical power that just saves the day.  Now, in good storytelling, if a character has some sort of great power, it also has to have some sort of flaws or weaknesses.  Brodie is an example of good storytelling.

He is described as a psychic.  The Truth (not an Obi Wan Kenobi-your-point-of-view-my-point-of-view-truth, but the literal, Platonic Ideal, imagine it standing next to the rest of Neil Gaiman's Endless, TRUTH) is real and wants people to know it.  Brodie, for whatever reason, can see the Truth, and it can see him.  It's very insistent about getting its message across.  To the point of beating it into Brodie when need be, and it defines need as pretty much whenever Brodie doesn't immediately hop to and do whatever it wants.  So, Brodie has great power; he knows what's really going on, even when he doesn't want to.  He knows he's sane.  He knows what he sees is real.  But he's jumpy, nervous, and constantly on the edge of institutionalization.  Every day of his life is a struggle to hold onto a thin veneer of normal.  And, of course, as a result of this, he doesn't exactly have a booming social life. 

Characters like that make me especially happy.  When I see real world set paranormal/fantasy I want to see characters struggling with the fact that the rest of the world doesn't believe in what they see.  I want to see a cost to great power.  Brodie is a broken mess of a man, but he's a very appealing mess.  The kind of character that encourages a desire to take him home, clean him up, and try to protect him from the big, bad world.  If Hannel had marketed this to the YA world, Brodie would have a huge collection of devoted teen girls swooning over him.  

Okay, before I get too far into fan-girl-mad-crush squeeing, let me get back to being a critical reviewer.  In addition to Brodie, is Detective Phil Dawson.  Brodie uses his skills to freelance investigate cold cases.  Detective Phil is actually a member of the LAPD.  We don't get a lot of backstory, (Actually, we get no backstory on this.) but somehow these two are friends.  Maybe they worked a case together and just clicked.  Maybe Phil also finds Brodie's mess of a life appealing.  For whatever reason, Phil actually likes Brodie; believes, as much as he can, in Brodie's talents; and supports him.  Phil is the guy Brodie calls when he's missing his cat and jonesing for a cigarette to deal with the stress.  (Brodie is very attached to his cat.  If he's got a love of his life, it's the cat.  Hear that sound? It's a thousand teen girls sighing.) 

Brodie wakes up in the middle of the night, his cat is covered in blood, and the Truth wants him to investigate a murder.  The next morning, Phil gets a call: a horrible murder has just happened.    And thus the plot is set in motion, because, of course, those cases are one in the same.       

The pacing is quick, hence the 'couldn't put it down' reviews, and the dialog is sharp.  Without dialog tags you can tell Phil from Brodie.  The plot is interesting, but not overwhelmingly complex, which also aids in keeping the pacing quick.  Though this isn't the greatest comparison, not the least because they spend no time in a lab, this book reads a lot like an episode of CSI.  There's not a ton of background on the characters, the case is the primary motive aspect of the plot, and the writing is tight. 

The lack of background is my main quibble with this story. I would have liked to have seen a deeper backstory.  I would have liked to know why Phil believes in Brodie.  I would have liked more information about The Apprentice (the bad guy), Contego Veritas (the mysterious organization protecting the world from Death), how the whole Death thing worked (Death is trapped in a box kept safe by Contego Veritas, and trying to get The Apprentice to get him out.)  You've probably seen someone say a book is only as good as its villain?  Well, that's not necessarily true.  This is a good book, but the villain is very sketchy.  An extra fifty pages spent following him, showing us how he got to where he was, what was motivating him, how he was finding his victims, all would have been welcome.  More than welcome, that would have made this very good book a great one.

Brodie is the only character we get any real backstory on.  I would have liked to know more about him as well, but I think the level we got was appropriate.  There are mysteries left to solve and quirks left to discover for later novels. 

My other quibble with the book was the ending seemed rushed.  Phil's storyline gets dropped.  We leave him hanging, having to prove his case is right under penalty of losing his job.  The reader knows he's correct, but we never find out if he's able to convince his supervisor he was right, soon enough to not get fired.  I understand why it was left out, after all, we already know how the story ended, but a bit of extra wrap up on him would have been nice.  Likewise Brodie's storyline also felt a little rushed.  Not bad, but very quick.  All the plot lines converged in a matter of minutes (literally, in story time the climax takes maybe fifteen minutes tops) into the climax of the story. 

All in all Death Has a Name made me very happy.  I'll call it an extremely well recommended four star.  Brodie will be back soon, and I'm looking forward to it.

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