Stefan Petrucha: Dead Mann Walking

Ever since we figured out how to bring people back from the dead, humanity has divided itself into two kinds: the livebloods, and the zombies (also known as chakz, a corrupted form of charqui, or jerky.) As you can imagine, chakz don’t exactly have it easy. Few laws protect them, they tend to break easily, and even the highest-functioning chakz run the risk of going feral and being put down without warning.

Hessius Mann is a chak. A former cop with anger management issues, he was executed for the brutal murder of his wife, and brought back after further evidence exonerated him. (That happens a lot in this world. When death’s not the ultimate sanction, it’s easier to give someone the death sentence and to overturn it … with some lasting consequences, of course.) Now he’s a PI, handling all the nasty cases people don’t want to entrust to a liveblood. He’s hired to find the zombie heir to a family fortune, but soon after he successfully completes his case, the fellow chak is killed for a second time. Mann does a little digging, and learns that a serial killer is knocking off chakz who fit a certain profile–and he’s one of a few in the city who likewise falls into that category. Now he has to stop a brutal killer from striking again, while keeping his own head where it belongs. On the bright side, maybe he’ll find out who really killed his wife. Unless Mann did it himself, like he’s always feared.

With almost every other kind of private detective accounted for, it’s no surprise that zombie PI’s are the next variant. Tim Waggoner’s done a good job with his Nekropolis books, but while that’s more of a dark fantasy series, this leans much more towards straight-up horror. Petrucha positively revels in the bleak hopelessness, death, and decay of the theme, melding it with the moral ambiguity and emotional quagmire of noir, exposing that rottenness at society’s heart quite literally. In this world, the dead walk. They also yearn for all they’ve lost, rot and fall apart, and eventually lose their minds and go feral. At least zombieness isn’t contagious, for all that it’s a curse rather than a blessing.

Hessius Mann exists in that dark, paranoid, nasty spot where the only person you can trust is yourself, and even then it’s dubious. His former co-workers either avoid him or outright detest him, and the only true friend he has is his secretary, a recovering crack whore who sews him up when things get messy. Certainly, he can’t trust his contacts, occasionally allies, or clients. As a chak, he barely has any rights; no one’s going to cry foul if he loses his head in a dark alley.

This book may be labeled as urban fantasy, but it exists on the darker edges of that category. It stems from the overlap of horror and noir, and it fills that niche quite well indeed. There’s nothing pretty, or comforting, or cheerful about Dead Mann Walking, and it won’t leave you with warm fuzzy feelings. It might make you ponder the human condition, and what it means to be alive. I suppose that means I enjoyed it, though I may have to find something a little more light-hearted for a follow-up. If you’re tired of badass chicks in leather pants, whose biggest dilemma is deciding which lover to pursue, this will make one heck of a change of pace, though.

(Roc, 2011)

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