Simon R. Green: Ghost of a Smile

When you have a problem with ghosts, you call the Carnacki Institute. They’ll discreetly handle everything from poltergeists to Big Black Dogges, exorcising or just plain terrorizing phantoms until they go away. The newest A-Team for the Institute is also one of its strangest. There’s the overly enthusiastic leader, JC Chance; the pill-popping pessimistic telepath, Happy Jack Palmer; the technogeek Melody Chambers; and their resident ghost, Kim Sterling. They may not be the first choice, but they’re usually the best.

First, the team investigates the strange doings of a long-closed factory, whose most recent owner has been found dead on the premises. Almost relatively straight-forward for one of their jobs, they have to figure out what’s haunting the factory and why people are dying at this stage of the game. The aid of a gifted amateur may hold the clues they’re looking for.

That’s just the warmup for the main event, when the Ghost Finders are summoned to London’s Chimera House, home to a research branch of Mutable Solutions, Inc., one of the world’s largest drug companies. Turns out that MSI has gone radio-silent after broadcasting a cry for help. Everyone who’s gone in since has simply vanished. So now our team has to plunge into the depths of a horrifying situation that’s left no survivors to date. No problem. But as they climb the floors towards the top, the things they encounter are progressively more disturbing, and more deadly. Ghosts are the least of their worries when they find out just what MSI was really up to … and what it’s produced. The human race is in for a very bad time if the Ghost Finders aren’t up to this task. Worse still, all evidence suggests someone close to them is playing for the wrong team. Yeah, we’re doomed.

I honestly have mixed feelings about this book. The second in Green’s Ghost Finders series, it’s actually better than the first. It’s a little bit stronger all around, with regards to plot, mood, and pacing. He plays with some interesting concepts, some of which are a recurring motif in his books. Human vs superhuman, natural vs supernatural, man vs monster, that sort of thing. At the risk of a very vague spoiler, he touches on the concept of “junk” DNA, coming to some thought-provoking ideas in the process. Under the right circumstances, this could be one hell of a spooky book. I’ve learned that Green’s work translates extremely well to the audio format, and this would also work well on the big screen, if done right.

Unfortunately, when compared to his other books, it still falls a little flat. His characters aren’t that well developed compared to other protagonists; they’re more like a bunch of quirks, neuroses, and catch phrases given human form. Two books in, and it feels like we know very little about JC, Melody, and Happy Jack beyond the superficial traits that define them. JC is enthusiastic, dashing and weird. Melody likes kinky sex and techno-gadgets. Happy Jack likes kinky sex with Melody, and has more mood swings than Dr. Jekyll, courtesy of the weird drugs he takes to regulate his powers. Kim’s a ghost whose love for JC keeps her from moving on, and their love is pure yet doomed. And there you go. Beyond that, they’re drawn straight from the Simon R. Green casting couch. It’s possible to argue that, in their role as action/thriller/horror movie heroes, we don’t need to know that much about them, but Green’s proven before that he can create nuanced, complex, interesting characters under just about any circumstance. To accept these ciphers as credible protagonists is to settle for less than the best.

Moving along, there’s the odd dichotomy of plots. The first chapter, a good 50 pages, is devoted all to one case; the rest of the book, another 200 pages or so, is dedicated to the larger plot. While it’s nothing new for an author to drop a “cold open” into the beginning of a book, and Green does it fairly often himself, it comes across as disconcerting here. There’s no real relation between the haunted factory and the nightmarish situation at MSI. Heck, the haunted factory is much more in line with the Ghost Finders’ mandate than the MSI incident, which could have been given over to Eddie Drood or John Taylor for much the same effect. It almost feels as though Green wrote the MSI story, realized that it was too short, and tacked a separate novella onto the front in order to pad things out. Both stories are satisfying, but they don’t feel connected, save for the shared characters.

Green placed the bar pretty high with his previous series. Compared to the epic scale of the Deathstalker series, the depth and versatility of the Forest Kingdom books, or the sheer balls-to-the-wall anything-goes approach of both the Secret Histories and the Nightside, the Ghost Finders come off somewhat the weaker. These books try hard, but it feels as though Green’s still finding his voice and niche. The first book was almost entirely devoid of references to his other works, in an aborted attempt at creating something independent. This book makes it very clear that it takes place in the same world as the others, which could either help or hinder the series’ evolution in future installments. Only time will tell if adding in the Nightside and the Droods and so on will be the blend of spices needed to give the Ghost Finders its unique flavor. In the meantime, it’s struggling a little.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that even a slightly dissatisfying Simon R. Green book is still an enjoyable experience. He’s mastered the art of the concept novel, building his plots around weird ideas and bizarre moments. His characters are take-charge and kick-ass, and woe be to anything that gets in their way. Even here, that’s true. Ghost of a Smile is a lovely blend of popcorn adventure and atmospheric thriller, and good for a few hours of distraction and entertainment. That’s one of the reasons why Green’s books always leap right to the top of my reading list. While this is far from perfect, it’s still worth the read.

(Ace, 2011)

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