Killing Pretty

by Richard Kadrey

Reviewed by Adam Armstrong

Humans tend to like order and repetition. People will lament to one another about breaking out and doing something different, but few do. Some do attempt to be or do something truly original, however they mostly regret it. The thought of absolutes (death and taxes come to mind) can be frightening. But something that is truly scary is the unknown. When absolutes, such as death, are no longer absolute all of a sudden all bets are off. 

Our favorite anti-hero, James Stark (also known as Sandman Slim) is living the not-so-easy life of watching his video rental business fail and trying to get used to his girlfriend’s new face. Stark decides maybe its time to get a real detective job: filing taxes, getting a 401K, and laying off the day drinking. He has to admit to himself that since most of his supernatural powers are gone (a trade he made in order to save the universe), a real job might be all that is left. But as Stark settles in to the 9-5 the first case he receives is a homicide. The odd thing about this particular homicide is that someone killed Death and now Death wants to know who killed him.

The angel of death was stuck in a human body and ritually killed. Stark needs to know why, and more importantly, who killed him. The dead aren't piling up but thousands are going into long stretching comas. Stark finds conspiracy upon conspiracy. Suspects run the gamut from vampires to neo-Nazis to necromancers. Taking out Death doesn't give any of them an advantage, as everyone will go on living forever. But if they were able to make a new Death, one that they could control, they would have the power of life over death. Whoever controls Death could control almost anything. And most importantly, whoever controls Death would be able to finally kill that pesky Sandman Slim. 

Kadrey starts the book off on the right foot: a bizarre mystery, several different paths it could go down, not letting the reader guess what the outcome is going to be, and enough exposition that a new reader doesn’t get too lost. The exposition isn’t seamless however. While some is snuck past the reader without them being any the wiser, the rest jars the reader out of the story some. However, at seven books it is a bit hard to jump into the action without catching up a little. 

This wasn't my first rodeo with Kadrey so I'm pretty familiar with his writing. At times he goes for a Raymond Chandler-esque style littered with profanity and dark humor. There is a lot of "I'm kicking you the real deal" tone in his writing but quite a few times he is able to produce beautiful turns of phrase. And Kadrey is able to paint a vivid picture of the supernatural underbelly of Hollywood that his characters populate, even if the characters themselves aren’t likable—interesting, not likable.

The plot immediately made me think of the Family Guy episode (Season 2, Episode 6, “Death Is a Bitch”) where Death breaks his ankle and can’t collect souls so everyone can survive. I can't be sure Kadrey is even aware of this but the odd comparison kept creeping into my mind as I read deeper into the book. Kadrey does have a twisted sense of humor but the cartoon was meant to be over-the-top ridiculous while Killing Pretty had a more serious flavor to it. That odd comparison aside, the idea of being able to ask Death questions about how he views existence and what he has seen gives the reader something to linger about long after they no longer want to think about it.

Aside from the main story arc there were a few other interesting bits such as the ghost fight club to the death (?). However the novel did tend to lean toward Stark and how he was coping both with losing some of his powers and the fact that his girlfriend, previously Candy now named Chihiro as she faked her death to escape going to prison, now looks different. The tough guy we’re accustomed to almost seemed like he was whining some here. As I said earlier there were a few jarring moments of exposition in the novel. Kadrey even used the "as you know, Bob" dialogue so often over-used in movies. And Stark focuses too much on events of previous novels. Kadrey may have been trying to humanize Stark and make him more relatable. It worked; it just felt a little heavy handed.

Fans of the series will have another adventure to explore, and share some introspection with Stark. If you haven’t read one of the Sandman Slim books you don’t need to in order to enjoy this book. But do yourself a favor and pick one up. Kadrey is a talented storyteller with intriguing characters and ideas. The books are fun: think not as witty as the Bobby Dollar series but more high-brow than the Deacon Chalk Bounty Hunter series.