Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Review: FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT by Darynda Jones

Do you woo-woo? I do. I’m really thrilled by the still-growing popularity of the urban fantasy genre and other paranormal fictional forms, not just because I write funny urban fantasy (or magical mystery, as my publisher calls it), but because I also love reading it. A really creative paranormal writer can set my imagination soaring. The problem is that whenever a publishing trend takes hold, some writers jump on the bandwagon and simply rehash what others have done. Look at what happened when THE DA VINCI CODE hit the heady heights of top bestsellerdom — we saw far too many Catholic Church secret conspiracies and capers set in museums. Now, suddenly, everyone who was anyone in history was a vampire — Robert E. Lee, Richard Nixon, a couple of popes... Where is the freshness this genre demands? The new paranormal beings?

Well, you’ll find a particularly wonderful one in the debut novel by New Mexico author, Darynda Jones, FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT, and its new sequel, SECOND GRAVE ON THE LEFT.

Lively, sparkling Charley Davidson is a part-time private investigator and a full-time grim reaper. From her first day in this world, the day she was born, she assumed the job of helping the souls of the newly-passed-on to go to the light. She doesn’t know what happens to them after they do, it’s just her job to help them to move in that direction. But some of the recently-departed don’t want to go, especially when they died as a result of violent crime. Then they want justice before moving on. Since Charley is a PI, the daughter of a retired cop, niece of an active one, and a frequent consultant to the Albuquerque PD, she’s the ideal person to give it to them. In FIRST GRAVE ON THE LEFT, it’s the three senior partners of a law firm — all murder victims — who need her to unravel the cause of their demise before they’re ready to give up this realm.

The ghosts aren’t background figures here, they’re highly engaged, sometimes learning important truths that would have helped them in the lives they’ve just lost during this in-between stage. Some are just transient figures in Charley’s life, as they wait for her to find out who killed them, and deal with those they’re leaving behind, while others are more permanent fixtures in Charley’s life and home. The permanent ghosts are hilarious, especially when they think they’re still performing earthbound activities. And as with lots of ghost stories before this one, sometimes it’s funny when Charley finds herself locked into a conversation with one of the departed, while in the presence of a living nonbeliever who thinks she’s talking to herself, and maybe just nuts.

Distracting Charley during her search for the bad guy is the unsettling, though super-hot, dream sex she’s been having with an entity who has been following her all of her life, who might be dead, but who might actually be something else entirely. The exact nature of this super-supernatural being is just as a fresh and surprising as the precise way Charley’s gift is depicted as functioning.

While a distinctive genre today, urban fantasy is actually the amalgamation of other genres, of crime, fantasy and romance, though the exact percentages will vary by novel, and will often reflect the background of the author. My own, and those of other mystery authors, will often emphasize the mystery, though the crimes reflected will usually take on a supernatural quality. Darynda Jones’s sparkling series is stronger on paranormal romance and fantasy aspects, but while the crimes and their investigation represents a smaller segment of FIRST GRAVE ON THE RIGHT, they are well done, with the need for justice strongly projected, and the resolution highly satisfying.

The best part of this series is its sassy, snarky, sexy protagonist, and the cheeky charm of a voice that will grab you from the first page and won’t let go of you until its satisfying conclusion. Original, engaging, and not to be missed. 

-- Kris Neri

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