In Necropolis, Michael Dempsey’s debut novel, death is a thing of the past. NYPD detective Paul Donner and his wife Elise were killed in a hold-up gone wrong. Fifty years later, Donner is back, courtesy of the Shift – an unintended side-effect of a botched biological terrorist attack. The Shift reawakens dead DNA and throws the life cycle into reverse. Reborns like Donner are not only slowly youthing toward a new childhood, but have become New York’s most hated minority.
With the city quarantined beneath a geodesic blister, government services are outsourced to a private security corporation named Surazal. Reborns and norms alike struggle in a counterclockwise world, where everybody gets younger. Elvis performs every night at Radio City Music Hall, and nobody has any hope of ever seeing the outside world. In this backwards-looking culture, Donner is haunted by revivers guilt, and becomes obsessed with finding out who killed him and his still-dead wife.
I was rather torn on Necropolis at first. It reads like it was written by a screen writer, something I always struggle with. That’s not a criticism of the prose which is actually quite good, but rather an observation that nearly every scene in the novel is written with an eye for the visual medium. Dark and stormy nights, lightning flash illuminations of the villain on the hill, fuzzy eyes awakening from a coma, are just a few of the techniques Dempsey employs that hearken to film. In a written novel an author isn’t limited to the visual to set mood and yet it felt like Necropolis frequently relied on these “establishing shots” to convey just that.
Cybill? Really? I didn’t see
After writing that paragraph I decided to look up Dempsey’s background. His “About the Author” note at the end of the book mentioned his background in theatre. That was significantly understating things. In the 90s, Dempsey wrote for CBS’s Cybill -which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series in 1996 (bet you’d forgotten that!). He has also sold and optioned screenplays and television scripts to companies like Tritone Productions and Carsey-Werner Productions in Los Angeles. His plays have been produced in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and regionally in theaters such as Actors Theatre of Louisville. He’s also a past recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Fellowship for playwriting.
Given all that, it shouldn’t be any surprise that his novel reflects his connection to visual mediums. In fact, I applaud him for sticking with what he knows. At the end of the day Necropolis is a science fiction novel deeply couched in noir and that’s why Dempsey wrote the novel the way he did. Noir is a visual classification that’s grounded far more in film than in the written word. Smoky rooms, long legged dames, and that understated black-and-white visual style, are all components that distinguish noir. Sure it’s based on the hardboiled depression era detective novel, but what we call noir is fundamentally a visual effect. I ended up asking myself, how can I be torn about something that worked so well? Short answer, I can’t – high five to Dempsey.
I don’t stand in smoke for just any
While the tone and mood of the novel worked wonderfully, I did find myself struggling a bit with Dempsey’s choice of narration and points of view. Donner’s chapters are told from the 1st person while all the others are done from a 3rd person limited. This was a technique also employed by Night Shade author Courtney Schafer in The Whitefire Crossing. Unlike Schafer who limits her points of view to two characters, Dempsey spreads his around more liberally with a half a dozen or more leading to frequent shifts that don’t always make a ton of sense. Generally, when an author chooses to tell the story from someone’s point of view he’s telling the reader this is someone important. There are at least three characters that receive this treatment in varying degrees who while interesting, in a I’d-like-to-read-a-short-story-about-this-person kind of way, provide nothing essential to moving things forward.
Relatively speaking that’s a pretty small complaint. The novel moves at a brisk pace and Donner is an interesting character with loads of demons to deal with – internal and external alike. His partner, a smarty (think holographic AI) named Maggie, provides a great juxtaposition to the revived Donner. As he struggles with why he’s alive while Maggie is the epitome of life albeit in someone whose “life” is entirely artificial. The plot itself is overtly melodramatic (again another theme of noir) leading to a pretty predictable ending and an eyebrow-cock-worthy coup de grâce. In this case the journey is good enough to trump the destination allowing me to give Dempsey a pass for the lack of a cleverly disguised big twist.
Ultimately, Necropolis strikes just the right pastiche of genres and themes. Demsey successfully takes components of film, science fiction, melodrama, and crime fiction and puts them together in what is another excellent debut from Night Shade.
Necropolis is due out in stores on October 4 and should not be confused with the similarly titled Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner from Angry Robot.