Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick
Humour is one of these slightly irrational human reactions. If A prods B with a sharp stick, excluding situations where scantily clad partners intend erotic reactions, it’s reasonable to predict an angry response. It’s more difficult to predict what will amuse or make people laugh. Assuming, of course, that the ultimate point of humour is laughter. Indeed, that assumption may be putting the cart before the horse. Does humour actually have a point? Often the things we find amusing are the results of situations where someone looks ridiculous or is the victim of an unfortunate accident. Yet people actively seek amusement which would suggest that humour has a social function. We obviously enjoy different types of stimuli and, whether by reading or joining in some activity, hope to relieve the tedium of existence with the resulting smile or laugh.
Let’s put aside what others find comic. When I look back at a lifetime spent reading, I recall rarely cracking a smile when ploughing through P G Wodehouse more than fifty years ago, but falling about in helpless mirth when absorbing some of the early Tom Sharpe. I suppose the best comedy lies in the contemporary moment when authors are able to address their audience in real time. Once even a decade has gone by, so many of the allusions and assumptions have changed, it grows harder to remember what people might have found amusing. As to humour from America, there were standout moments. Back in 1962 before onboard terrorism became a threat, an air stewardess asked me to stop reading Catch 22 because my laughter was disturbing the other passengers. But, in general, I’ve found even less to make me laugh in US fiction with the exception of some short stories in the 1950s and 60s by Henry Kuttner, Robert Sheckley and the pseudonymous William Tenn. I have the sense that comedy does not comfortably pass over linguistic and cultural borders unless the content is universalised as satire or absurdism. For the most part, I appreciate the cleverness of what’s intended to be comic writing. The craftsmanship of the wordplay can be genuinely pleasing. But it doesn’t make me laugh (or smile very often, for that matter).
All of which brings me to Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick (PYR, 2008). This follows the exploits of John Justin Mallory, a PI stranded in an alternate Manhattan and featuring in Stalking the Unicorn (1987), Stalking the Dragon (2009) and a collection of short stories titled Stalking the Zombie due later this year (2012). The hook is reasonably conventional. Our hero starts off his miserable existence in our New York. Like all noir PIs, his wife has succumbed to the charms of his partner and, left to his own devices, his business is going from worse to diabolical. As with any hero down on his luck, he takes to the bottle and so is less than impressed when an elf appears and offers him money to track down a unicorn that’s gone AWOL. This moves his business into an alternate reality in which the supernatural is accepted as perfectly normal by all who live there. Not surprisingly, our laconic Mallory takes everything in his stride, cracks the case and settles down in this new world. This leaves him down on his luck and struggling to earn enough to cover the rent on his new office. Plus ça change and then some.
So how does Stalking the Vampire measure up in the comedy stakes? Following the rescue of the unicorn, this book continues the strict adherence to the Aristotelian unity of time. As has now been popularised by the television serial 24, each chapter follows real time with the clock progressing an identified number of minutes. The convention is that the action in each book or story should be completed in no more than 24 hours. Second, this is the fish-out-of-water trope with noir meeting whimsy. The humour is intended to flow from our practical gumshoe’s reaction to the madcap world around him. Except, of course, many of the supernatural beings are as deadly in this world as they have been in ours. So our hero can’t verbally brush off all-comers. He needs the help of locals to navigate the waters safely. Hence, the regulars are Felina, a real catwoman, and Col Winnifred Caruthers who’s a female big game hunter. For the purposes of this book, we add Bats McGuire, a pusillanimous vampire, and Scaly Jim Chandler (better known as Nathan Botts), a dragon who writes very bad PI novels —a sample is included as one of the appendices. Finally, there’s Grundy who, in Sherlock Holmes terms, represents the local Moriarty. Were they not on opposite sides, they would be friends if only because Mallory is completely unimpressed by the demon’s villainous approach to life (or should that be afterlife — difficult semantics when talking about a demon interacting with the human world).
There are a number of individual moments when I smiled in admiration of a nice touch. Unfortunately, Mike Resnick relies on running jokes that, after the first few miles, grow lame. As the miles rack up, they get blistered and limp. In other words, at this length (248 pages of novel plus 20 further pages of appendices and a biography), the repetitive nature of the different styles of humour wears out its welcome. Had this been 150 pages in total, there would be less chance of the jokes recycling too many times. But every time Mallory talks with Felina, their conversation follows exactly the same pattern. She’s heavily into cupboard love and skritching, while he’s always negotiating to get her constructive co-operation in the investigation. Goblins relentlessly try to sell him silly things at inflated prices. And so on. When not into situational humour, we get verbal humour. When not into absurdity, we get nonsense. Even puns appear from time to time. You have to admire the dedication of the author to the cause.
So here’s the final view. Stalking the Vampire is well-imagined and, in short bursts, highly readable. But, unless your sense of humour is on this single wavelength, you will not find this uproariously funny. I understood where I was supposed to find things amusing, and one or two of the individual jokes do hit the mark. But, to my jaded palate, the set-piece passages slow down the development of the urban fantasy plot. Ah yes, the plot. This is very professional as, without a description of the vampire in question, Mallory and his sidekicks must find the fiend and bring an end to proceedings before the clock runs out. It does all hang together, but you need to be strong to get to the end in a single sitting.
As a final thought, Mike Resnick has sold the film rights to the John Justin Mallory books and stories, so this is yet another film we almost certainly will never see.
For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
The Trojan Colt