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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Kevin J. Anderson: DAN SHAMBLE, ZOMBIE P.I. SERIES

Author:  Kevin J. Anderson   
Series:  DAN SHAMBLE, ZOMBIE P.I.   
Plot Type:  Light Urban Fantasy (UF)   
Ratings:  Violence--4; Sensuality--2; Humor--3-4
Publisher and Titles:  Kensington
          Death Warmed Over (9/2012)
          "Stakeout at the Zombie Circus" (e-novella, 10/2012)
          Unnatural Acts (1/2013)
          Hair Raising (4/2013)
          "Road Kill" (e-short story, 4/2013)


     This post was revised and updated on 6/8/13 to include reviews of the third novel and the second e-book in the series: Hair Raising and "Road Kill."  Those reviews appear first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of novels 1 and 2 and and e-book 1:

             NOVEL 3:  Hair Raising             
     Once again, Dan Chambeaux (aka Dan Shamble) takes on (and solves) a few cases, and once again he finds that, in the final analysis, most of those cases are connected. Here's the rundown: Werewolves are being dart-drugged and scalped. A model-builder has a complaint about the human body parts he ordered from a spare-parts supplier. Full-time and part-time werewolves are on the brink of an intraspecies war. A zombie pays for a cremation that never happens. Unnaturals are disappearing from the streets of the Unnatural Quarter without a trace. A harpy wants to get rid of a bad-luck charm. A zombie is sued for child support but is denied visitation rights. Meanwhile, Dan discovers how it feels to be famous when the first Dan Shamble mystery novel is published, and swarms of his fans mob him at the Worldwide Horror Convention, which is being held in the Unnatural Quarter. 

      Dan's clients aren't nearly as funny as the ones in the previous two novels. In fact, several of them are unlikable, unhinged, and unsociable. The humor is also different—mostly based on bathroom humor of the lowest kind (e.g., noxious farts in a hot tub; splattering monster excrement; a demonic beauty shop patron covered entirely with pubic hair—with its accompanying odor; a werewolf lecture about bodily functions—including bowel movements). I mean, really, this stuff is gross, and completely lacking in humor. When reading these scenes, you're more likely to react with a grimace than a grin. Even Officer McGoohan's awful jokes fall flat in this book, whereas in books 1 and 2, they were worth at least a snicker.


     The requisite climactic battle that pulls everything together has a hairy deus ex machina and several improbable coincidences that weaken the ending of the book. You'll figure out the connections among the cases and the identities of most of the villains almost immediately, so there's no real build-up of suspense.


     Although Dan and his friends are always fun to watch, this is definitely the weakest of the books and the most formulaic. Anderson should consider skipping the fecal gags (and I mean "gag" in the most literal sense) and returning to the quirky, but much more amusing, characters and situations that he featured in books 1 and 2. After all, this is supposed to be a spoof of the ubiquitous zombie fiction now flooding the market, and, by definition, spoofs are supposed to be funny.


             E-BOOK 2:  "Road Kill" (Short Story)            
     This e-short story is perfect for a new reader of the series because it is heavy with background information, filling the reader in on Dan and his friends and their lives in New Orleans' Unnatural Quarter. The skimpy plot involves a case requiring Dan to act as a decoy for a man who is going into witness protection. Dan's friend, Officer McGoohan, hires Dan and his partner to get Sebastian Bund safely to a secret location, but it all goes wrong, and Dan is right in the middle of the mess (as usual). There are some moderately funny lines, the best of which is this one: "I pounded the wooden lid with my fists. Yes, it's a cliché: I had become one of those things that go bump in the night."

     For the regular readers of the series, this one is probably a nonessential purchase (even though it costs only 99¢). Road Kill is definitely a short storynot even a novella. Don't be fooled by amazon's estimate of 49 pages because half of those pages are dedicated to blurbs for all of Anderson's other books and series. The actual story runs from locations 61 to 348; the blurbs go from locations 352-706—about 20% longer than the story itself. Anderson includes an introductory section called "Introducing Dan Shamble, Zombie PI" (locations 24-56), and that's great for a new reader, but of little interest to anyone else.

     Click HERE to go to Road Kill's amazon.com page with its "Look Inside" book cover. Just click on the cover to read the Introduction and several pages of the story.

             WORLD-BUILDING             
     In this zombie-spoof series set in an alternate New Orleans, life has changed drastically since the Big Uneasy occurred ten years ago. Here's what happened: "The original copy of the Necronomicon had inadvertently been left out under the light of a full moon, and a virgin woman...had cut her finger...and spilled blood on the pageswhich activated some buried spell and caused a fundamental shift in the natural order of things, unleashing ghosts and goblins, vampires and werewolves, zombies, ghouls, and all manner of monsters. Even the previously existing ones had come out of the closet. The Big Uneasy...the world had been dealing with the repercussions ever since." (Death Warmed Over, p. 153)

     Instead of the French Quarter, natural (human) tourists in New Orleans stream into the Unnatural Quarter to get a look at the bizarre community of supernatural beings who live there. In this world, one in 75 dead people returns as a zombie, while one in 30 returns as a ghost. For unknown reasons, murder and suicide victims are more likely to return than those who die of natural or accidental causes.


     After the Big Uneasy, new laws and regulations had to be put in place to handle a multitude of exigencies. For example,"New rules required quick-release latches on the insides of tombs..., so the undead can conveniently get back out. Some people were even buried with their cell phones, though I doubted they'd get good service from inside. Can you hear me now?" (Death Warmed Over, p. 5) New products were developed specifically for unnatural customers, including seasonings that make chicken "taste just like  human," cosmetics to brighten up zombie-gray or vampire-pale skin, and deodorants to mask zombie-rot body odors.  

     The series hero, Dan Chambeaux, was a human private investigator in New Orleans for a long time, but now he's a newbie zombie, having been shot in the head in a dark alley just a month ago. As the series opens, his own murder is at the top of his case list, closely followed by that of his girlfriend, Sheyenne, who returned from her death (by toadstool poisoning) as a ghostspecifically, a poltergeist. Poltergeists can touch physical objects, but not people, so Sheyenne can hold down her job as Dan's assistant, but she can't touch Dan, which has put a serious damper on their love life. Dan laments that "Sheyenne is beautiful, blond, and intangible." ("Stakeout at the Zombie Circus"

     Dan has always been self confidant in a naively arrogant sort of way, and death and zombification haven't changed that aspect of his personality: "Even undead, I remain as handsome as ever, with the exception of the [two] holes left by the bullet....Fortunately, a low-slouched fedora covers the big hole." (Death Warmed Over, p. 3) Dan has never acquired a taste for brains, and he's very careful about his personal hygiene, which can be a major problem for most zombies. Since Dan became a zombie, people have begun calling him "Shamble" instead of "Chambeaux." In fact, his business—Chambeaux & Deyer Investigations—has been nicknamed "Shamble & Die." Dan's partner is Robin Deyer, a young, soft-hearted, human attorney who is determined to provide justice to all unnaturals. Both of the partners are workaholics, with Dan's long-time mantra being "The cases don't solve themselves." 


     Dan's BHF (Best Human Friend) is Officer Toby McGoohan, the beat cop for the Unnatural Quarter. McGoohan's defining characteristic is his constant telling of really bad, non-PC jokes about unnaturals. For example, "What goes 'Ha-ha-ha...plop?'...A shambler laughing his head off." (p. 30)

             
 NOVEL 1:  Death Warmed Over             
     The series opener is put together like an overlapping set of sit-com episodes as Dan moves from one oddball case to the next. In this book, his clients include a skittish vampire interior decorator who is being harassed by local humans-first activists who call themselves Straight Edge; a middle-aged werewolf "cougar" whose wealthy husband is trying to get their pre-nup invalidated because of her newly furry state; a pair of witch siblings who are suing a book publisher because a typo in a spell book resulted in one sister's turning into a pig; a kindly humanitarian whose street mission has been badly vandalized by a mysterious unnatural monster; a mischievous ghost who is harassing his niece's family; and an Egyptian mummy who wants emancipation from his "servitude" to the local art museum, which claims to own him. Then, there's Dan's ongoing feud with the owner and the chief scientist/sales rep for Jekyll Lifestyle Products and Necroceuticals, who still hold a grudge against Dan for infiltrating their manufacturing facility a year or so ago and proving that they were putting garlic in vampire hair products, which resulted in an expensive court case and a huge fine. And don't forget that Dan's still trying to find his and Sheyenne's murderers. Each dispute is solvedone way or anotherbut only one (which has connections to a few of the others) turns into the main story line. All of these cases (which "don't solve themselves") mean that Dan moves from one case-specific scene to another in quick succession. That makes the story line humorously cluttered, but not really complicated.

     Anderson concocts a humorous description and back-story for each quirky character. For example, Sheldon Fennerman, the vampire decorator, "looked like the illegitimate love child of a bunny and a hamster, but without the fur."  (p. 19) Sheldon was a vegan before his transformation, and now drinks only soy blood. He's also quite fond of best-seller book clubs, bridge, cribbage, French-themed potlucks, and fondue. Sheldon's idea of interior decoration is burnt-orange shag carpet, Mediterranean-style furniture, and that kitten poster from the 1970s


     Although the plot has a few rough spots and at least one continuity issue (regarding the time line involving the beginning of Robin and Dan's partnership and their solving of the vampire-garlic case), this is an entertaining book that shambles along with lots of noir humor, a profusion of eccentric characters, and just enough violence to make it suspenseful. This is light-hearted urban fantasy at its best.  


     I listened to several chapters of the audiobook, and Phil Gigante does a great job with the various voices. He's got them all down perfectly, especially Dan's New Orleans drawl, Sheyenne's sexy purr, and Sheldon's petulant whine.


          E-BOOK 1:  "Stakeout at the Vampire Circus"  (Novella)         

     In this brief novella, Dan and Sheyenne visit a traveling circus for professional reasons (another one of those cases that don't solve themselves). The transvestite fortune teller has hired Dan to find out who has stolen two packs of fortune-telling cards. Dan soon discovers that the circus has been hit by a series of petty thefts, and the ringmaster/owner hires Dan to solve the whole mess.  

     This is a throw-away story that doesn't hold a candle to the characterization and drama of the first novel in the series, but I guess that if you'd like to get a taste of Dan Shamble's world you could get it from reading this little tale. Part of the problem is the brevity, because there's no room for the wealth of weird details, odd back-stories, and suspenseful danger in the short novella format. That leaves the reader with the bare bones of a fairly silly plot in which the identity of the light-weight villains is telegraphed early on and the "climax" is more of a sigh.            


             NOVEL 2:  Unnatural Acts             
     The story lines of this book are set up just as they were in book 1. In the early chapters, a number of colorful unnaturals hire Dan and Robin to handle various legal and investigational business while in the background two larger plot lines simmer on the back burner. Eventually, some of the thinner story lines are resolved, while others melt into the major plot lines and explode into climactic resolution near the end of the book.

     This time, the early cases involve a necromancer who is oppressing a large group of golems in his workplace, an arson investigation at the Shakespearean Theater in Greenlawn Cemetery, a ghostly bank robber who wants to maintain his image, hate-crime vandalism at the Full Moon brothel, the retrieval of a zombie's heart and soul, and two civil rights cases involving property ownership by unnaturals. The first of the larger plot lines centers on the Smile Syndicate, an evil corporation that is buying up businesses and land in the unnatural Quarter and turning it into kitschy tourist attractions. The second major plot line that runs throughout the story is the threat of Senator Rupert Balfour's Unnatural Acts Act, which would restrict nearly every aspect of existence for the unnatural population and take away most of their already scarce civil rights. The villains represent the two major themes of this book: the damage that giant corporations do to independent businesses and to the people who depend on them and the infringement on individual rights that comes when a group with power uses that power to persecute a minority group.

     The kindly Mrs. Saldana turns up once again in her role as head of the Hope & Salvation Mission in the Unnatural Quarter. Dan and Robin provide legal assistance to Mrs. Saldana as she finds a benefactor in the philanthropist, Irwyn Goodfellow, and needs help in setting up a foundation and organizing the MLDW (Monster Legal Defense Workers). 

     We follow Dan as he works the cases. (Remember Dan's motto, "The cases don't solve themselves.") As always, he is aided by his BHF (Best Human Friend), Officer Toby McGoohan; his partner, Robin Deyer; and his ghostly girlfriend, Sheyenne. Sheyenne has her own troubles to deal with when her long-estranged, con-man brother, Travis, turns up and causes major trouble for everyone.

     Each case involves colorful, quirky charactersboth human and unnatural. Even the witchy Wannovich sisters, Alma and Mavis, play a part in the controlled chaos that is Dan's life. They plan to write a series of pulp-fiction books based on Dan's cases, and they want him to helpnot to mention that Alma still has a major crush on Dantoo bad that she's still stuck in pig form (due to a spell gone wrong in book 1). 

     This continues to be an entertaining series, with lots of oddball characters, weird cases, and malicious villains. It's paranormal noir fiction lite.

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