Already Dead by Charlie Huston
The high concept of this book is hard-boiled vampire detective. Great idea but it needs the execution to make it work – and that is exactly what Huston brings to this great story.
Joe Pitt is a vampire (or ‘Vampyre’, as Huston has it) in Manhattan, but he doesn’t belong to any of the clans that rule different sections of the island. Most of the city is ruled by the Coalition, from 14th street up to 110th (where the Hood take over), with the rest of the lower end split up into various clans (the Society, Family, Enclave, the Wall, the Dusters, and the Bulls and the Bears). He makes his way by doing jobs for the Coalition and the Society without taking any clan affiliations, because he wants to go his own way.
The book starts with a great line: ‘I smell them before I see them.’ Pitt is tracking some zombies (‘shamblers’) in his neighbourhood. Huston has a nice explanation of the bacteria that cause the zombie state; he also has a well-thought out scientific discussion of the ‘Vyrus’ that causes vampirism. It also helps that he does the hard-boiled dialogue and prose really well – a good tale is not enough if it isn’t told well – with such lyrical expressions as ‘yellow tape, this era’s icon of tragedy’.
In dealing with the shamblers, Pitt comes into conflict with the Coalition, and he has to agree to do a job for them, looking for the missing daughter of a prominent New York family. As with classic pulp noir, the case our hero is working on at the beginning that seems to be unrelated to the main investigation ends up being integral to the plot and things dovetail in a climax of conspiracy and violence.
I had never read any Huston before; I had heard of him when he took up duties on the new Moon Knight launch, although I didn’t read any of that to judge him. The conceit of the novel is what attracted me to this spontaneous purchase and it was one of those electric moments when one discovers a cracking piece of fiction that had no previous form (Huston has written other, non-Pitt novels, but I haven’t heard of them). The fascinating character of Pitt, the well-developed sense of the world in which he lives, the supporting players in this absorbing story all work – I thought that this was a novel in the middle of the series, it was so assured and completely realised. It was a wonderful surprise to discover that it is the first in five books about Pitt, and I can’t wait to read the next books.
Pitt is a classic protagonist in the vein of Marlowe and Spade, and the vampirism adds that extra edge that gives a frisson to the action. Also, the book is a Manhattan story, as the island plays a real part in the book. The naturalism of the description of the city helps to create the illusion of reality, as Pitt moves through the different levels of New York. Add Huston’s razor-sharp prose and you have a highly recommended book. Now, I’ll have to try his Moon Knight series …