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Doyle After Death by John Shirley

August 17, 2014 8 comments

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Doyle After Death by John Shirley (Witness Impulse, 2013) starts off as great fun in a metaphysical fashion and then grows slightly more serious towards the end as various characters are forced to confront the reality of their true selves. On the first page, our narrator Nick Fogg dies in Las Vegas. He’s doing his best to earn a crust as a private investigator but ends up with a big burden of guilt. No matter what your view of the afterlife (which may vary from angels strumming harps to a number of virgins waiting for you if you have killed an infidel or two), his spirit ends up in a new body beside a wine-coloured sea. Walking along the shore, he find the official greeter who duly introduces him into the local community which is called Garden Rest. As you will gather from the book’s title, one of the village’s residents is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and so begins the tale of Sherlock’s creator and a modern gumshoe who are caught up in an investigation of a murder. That’s when he’s not drinking, engaging in sex, and denying he brought any cigarettes over with him — tobacco is the one thing everyone seems to miss in this “place”.

So now you see why I said the book was metaphysical. All the people on this plane are already dead so it’s somewhat paradoxical to suggest more of more of them might be able to die again. The trick, if you can master it, is to control the elements from which the body has been constructed and deformulate it. The locals have the reverse process down to a fine art. If you want a new house, all you have to do is have a couple of experts thrust their hands into the soil on the site and, hey presto, the building is formulated out of ectoplasm drawn from the ground. Indeed, the first third of the book is a rather gentle ramble round this part of the afterlife with Nick Fogg being shown the ropes and introduced to the cast of local characters who are drawn from across time and racial divides.

John Shirley with an interesting view of the afterlife

John Shirley with an interesting view of the afterlife

This makes the book slightly uncharacteristic of Shirley who’s better known for hard-edged storytelling in the science fiction and horror genres. Although there’s a wealth of careful thinking invested in the creation of this plane of reality and the rules governing existence on it, this is more a fantasy. Yes there are moments when there are signs there may be slightly more horror underlying the operation of life after death, but this is a fairly amiable murder mystery with Doyle using some of the forensic skills he learned from Dr Bell to pick up clues. Only as we come into the final third when Doyle’s wife is kidnapped do we see something of the “larger than life” style that Shirley usually employs.

As to the mystery element, we know little of the two men who have died. It seems one was a homeless man back on Earth who didn’t change much when he crossed over. The victim found as Fogg arrives was a botanist, but we’re not given a chance to meet him or get any sense that Doyle and Fogg are engaged in seeking justice for him. It’s just a puzzle there to be solved as and when the peregrinations around this neck of the woods permit. Rather the focus of the book is the failure of both Doyle and Fogg to resolve their emotions relating to their earlier lives. In the afterlife, Doyle can have access to the two women he married when alive. So which one should he prefer? Similarly, through dreams, Fogg relives the key moments before he died and we get to see why he feels so guilty. By and large, these elements seem the strongest in the book. So as our detective duo move towards a form of redemption, they have the murders to solve and Doyle’s kidnapped wife to recover. In this, the birds and local wildlife offer words of comment and encouragement. And, in the end, there’s a reasonably fair resolution of the major plot elements. So this is a gentle book with occasional weird digressions. It’s not a Holmesian-style mystery with deductive reasoning festooning the landscape. They get the right answer because there’s no-one else left to chase. This makes Doyle After Death a fairly undemanding read with occasional fun and some interesting ideas about what an afterlife might look like.

For a review of a fiction collection by John Shirley, see In Extremis. There are two standalone novels:
Bleak History
New Taboos
and two novelisations called:
Borderlands: The Fallen
Resident Evil: Retribution.

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