Monday, April 14, 2014

Bourgeois Book Club

The Happier Dead by Ivo Stourton

Twenty years from now, the rich get eternal youth through "The Treatment," complete with a stay at London's Great Spa. When one of those newly young rich people is murdered during his stay, ex-soldier turned policeman Chief Inspector Oates is called in to investigate. Though there is already a suspect complete with confession, an embittered Spa employee with a hatred for the wealthy he works for, there is much, much more to this case than homicidal class envy. Over the course of one long winter night, London explodes in an orgy of riots and violence by the young and unemployed, the identity of the killer is revealed, and the cost of immortality is shown to be far too dear for mere mortals.

The Happier Dead is brilliant as a mystery with science fiction trappings, but particularly noteworthy for its many layers and attention to one man's inner life. Instead of just a steely action character, we get an emotionally complex man struggling with the stresses of career on a father and husband. He worries about being a good father and husband. Oates is a tough SOB willing to use his fists, but also a man haunted by that violence inside him, in his former career as a soldier and now as a policeman. I've rarely read a book of this kind so concerned with a man's emotional life, and it's extremely refreshing.

The relationship between the inspector and his wife is perhaps my favorite part, because it feels more real than a lot of relationships come across in books of this type. They fight, they have strains about his work, but they love each other too. And the deep love and respect he has for her is really striking. It's really some of the realest and sweetest descriptions of love I've ever read, actually, because it's very mundane.

Add to this meditations on economic justice, mortality, corruption, generational conflict, free will, and what makes us human, and The Happier Dead's s one of the most pensive and complex books I've read in some time, all without sacrificing action or suspense, and clocking in at a fairly svelte three hundred or so pages.

My one main criticism is that there's a bit of Tragic Backstory, teased but not fully revealed until the middle of the book, that is more eye-rolling than affecting. It's a cliche with no real purpose except to add a bit of unnecessary Man Pain as a plot-mover. Frankly, I think the book is too good for such cheapness, and it's a sour note.

But that relatively minor criticism aside, The Happier Dead is a deceptively deep novel that uses a science fictional premise for its true purpose: the exploration of the human condition here and now, then and there, always and forever.

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