(2021) Adam Simcox, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 404pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23436-9
“WHO BETTER TO SOLVE A MURDER THAN A DEAD DETECTIVE?” screams the blurb on the cover of this promotional proof copy of The Dying Squad in giant red letters that are a bit scratchy, fading in and out, as if trying to come through from the other side. Although the actual blurb on the non-proof, published version says “The dead are on the beat” which isn’t the greatest tag in the world “The dead are on the case” might have been better. While the back cover blurb proclaims “Line of Duty meets Rivers of London”, a smart marketing ploy because if you are into Ben Aaronovitch highly enjoyable fantasy/ police procedurals you might enjoy Adam Simcox’s debut novel.
And why not, it certainly gets off to a gripping start as Detective Inspector Joe Lazarus gets ready to burst into a farmhouse to take down a drug gang, only to discover a dead body inside, but it’s not one of the gang, it’s him! He’s not dazed and confused, he’s dead and confused, but has a foul-mouthed spirit guide with pink hair called Daisy-May to help him by taking him to that part of purgatory known as the Pen where the souls of the unavenged reside. The Pen is ruled by the Duchess and Joe is enlisted into the Dying Squad, who are a ghostly bunch of coppers who have crimes to solve and Joe has a very obvious first case – solving his own murder, but he has to be quick if he if going to get out of purgatory because his memories are starting to fade, and his memory is only going to get worse the more time he spends on “Soil Side”, that is, in the land of the living, until he is just left as a mindless shell, so the clock is ticking to solve the case before Joe loses all his memories and before the killer strikes again.
The plot fairly zips along with contrasting viewpoints, plot reveals, fizzing banter between the two leads, flashbacks and a host of colourful characters who occupy the Pen, some of whom are more than a tad annoyed at the prospect of being stuck there forever and are about to do something about it, which is going to upset the celestial applecart. Given that when we aren’t in Purgatory, the action takes place in remote parts of rural Lincolnshire, this certainly isn’t an urban fantasy, nor is it a cosy-ish fantasy police procedural, and Simcox makes the best of the disaffected rural youth who have no prospects out in the sticks, so why not start taking drugs, become addicted and become mules for city gangs? Certainly Joe as a cop and Daisy-May as a street kid in Nottingham have seen their share of the dark side of life, but really, Lazarus as a surname? Ah, well I suppose it’s memorable, and speaking of names, once you meet the terrifying Xylophone Man, you’ll probably never look at that musical instrument in the same way again.
All in all, Simcox has added his own original spin to the whole supernatural crime sub-genre, and his world building will no doubt be expanded in future books in the series although, given the conclusion The Dying Squad could be regarded as a stand-alone novel, but it would be shame not to join Joe in his further adventures beyond the veil, or lurking just behind it.
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