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Well, I must say, this was a rolicking good read, one which had me chuckling out loud on the metro on my way to work. This is Darynda Jones’ first installment in her Charley Davidson’s Private Eye series. There are now eight books in the series, which attests to its great popularity. I chose this book from Book Club Reading List.

Here is the blurb from Darynda Jones’ own website:

Charley sees dead people. That’s right, she sees dead people. And it’s her job to convince them to “go into the light.” But when these very dead people have died under less than ideal circumstances (i.e. murder), sometimes they want Charley to bring the bad guys to justice. Complicating matters are the intensely hot dreams she’s been having about an entity who has been following her all her life…and it turns out he might not be dead after all. In fact, he might be something else entirely.

The Grim Reaper

That’s right. With a wink backwards to the 1999 classic horror film, The Sixth Sense, starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, Charley has the disconcerting gift of seeing dead people hovering about, usually because they want to ask a favor from her, and that usually means they have been dispatched from the human plane through violent, murderous means. But not always! Some of Charlie’s dead friends don’t really know they’re dead, including her great aunt Lillian who floats in and out of Charley’s apartment making the most appalling coffee. Charley is tempted a few times to clue her great aunt ‘in’ on her state of ‘non-living,’ but in the end decides she doesn’t have the heart to upset the old gal. Or the gentle Chinese man, Mr. Wong, who floats several inches off the floor in one corner of Charley’s bedroom. He was there when she moved in, he seemed harmless enough, and he always has his back turned to her. So Charley felt he had first dibs on the apartment and decided to cohabit in a spirit of tolerant live-and-let-live. And so it goes throughout this mystery-thriller-paranormal-romance-crime novel. The strangest non living beings keep popping up unexpectedly, sometimes ‘passing through’ Charley on their way to somewhere else while engaged in animated conversations with other floating, once-human,  spirit beings. My favorites – the two old Italian ladies bickering with one another who blissfully passed through Charley while she was visiting an inmate in prison. We wonder who the old ladies were visiting and what they were arguing about, but a glimpse is all we get and it’s enough to give us a clear understanding that Charley inhabits one freaking weird universe.

The departed exist on one plane, and the human race exists on another, and somehow – whether by freak accident, divine intervention, or psychological disorder – I exist on both. 

Those ‘post-human’ beings who become involved in Charley’s life usually have unfinished business to attend to on the human plane, sometimes not, but in any DarkDeadlyDivine-DJBlackFinal-2case Charley’s spiritual responsibility is to help them any way she can to pass into the light. Sometimes this requires a forceful shove (You’re dead, wake up, move on!). Sometimes it involves helping these living spirits complete their unfinished business,  conveying messages to loved ones, bringing murderers to justice, after which the Light – which radiates through Charley – draws them into its embrace through its own magnetic power. Yes, there are strong echoes here of ‘Near Death Experiences,’ coupled with many of the beliefs of Spiritualism, but it’s all handled very lightheartedly. Because of this special power, visited upon Charley for no apparent reason she can devise, she has given herself the nickname, The Grim Reaper. One usually thinks of the ‘Grim Reaper, from popular folklore, as death itself, skull and all, ensconced inside a dark shroud and carrying a scythe by which she reaps up the piles of corpses. But Charley uses the term ironically and wittily. There is nothing grim about her, and she doesn’t call people from life to death, she helps them transition from ‘not so dead’ to ‘beyond death into light.’

I can only help the departed figure out why they’re still on Earth, then lure them across planes afterwards. I can’t force them to go against their will. 

The Crime Itself

What does any of this have to do with crime and mystery? Ah, well, there’s the rub! Without giving away important elements of the plot (since these facts are revealed early on), three lawyers from the same law firm have all been murdered on the same night and all three make their appearance in Charley’s life, expecting her to find their killer. All three are in someway connected to the murder of one teenage boy and the disappearance of another. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. The murder mystery, motive and dastardly villains are all convoluted enough to keep the pages turning.

Yes, she passed through me. She was light and warmth and unconditional love. I didn’t understand it at the time but she told me she was happy to give up her life so that I could live. She made me feel calm and cherished, which was a good thing. 

Life After Life

The dead folk we encounter in the novel seem much like they were in real life, with all of their quirks intact and they don’t seem particularly disconcerted by their post mortem existence either – except for the one lawyer who didn’t realize he was dead and refused to get out of his body.

“Okay, fine, if I’m dead, how am I talking to you? And why are you so sparkly?”

And imagine the comic possibilities of witnessing Charley carrying on conversations on multiple planes of existence during an investigation, – with the living in a normal fashion – and with the ‘almost dead’ hovering about in the shadows offering bits of advice and joining in the fracas. These scenes are almost too funny to believe as Charley struggles to keep the conversations straight, sometimes having to speak sotto voce or out of the side of her mouth when in the presence of  live humans who don’t appreciate her special gifts. But also imagine the possibilities of crime solving when the dead can lead you to the location of their corpses and even give hints as to the actual killers.

It’s amazing how easy it is to solve crimes when you can ask the victims who did it?

Apart from these humorous situations, each chapter of the novel begins with a humorous aphorism culled from T-shirts:

Never knock on death’s door. Ring the doorbell then run. He totally hates that. – T-Shirt

It is this witty tone and the interwoven theme of ‘transition into the light,’ that transforms this murder mystery into quite a lighthearted, hopeful and even inspiring mystery. This vision of the afterlife, much of it gleaned from reports of near death experiences, is introduced gently, unobtrusively and wittily, leaving the reader to treat it as an amusing gimmick and plot device or as suggesting something more profound. The author very wisely does not impose, but the end result of this spiritual theme is that much of the sting is taken out of death and the horror of violent ends as well. There is a gentle sense of an unconditional love streaming throughout the universe making all things well, and using Charley as a conduit for its own universal intelligence. The problem with making this theme so explicit in a review is that it makes it seem heavier than it actually is in the book. Call it a harmonious, pleasant background noise, soothing the soul unobtrusifvely. Take it or leave it, but it works its magic on the unconscious all the same.

Towards the end of the novel, when the crime is solved and all three lawyers have accomplished their leftover tasks on this earthly plane, each one of them begins to feel the pull towards the infinite light. Their inbetween state is coming to an end and they transition through Charley in peace and joy – and disappear in a puff. 

Many crime novels have a postmodern atmosphere of metaphysical nihilism and doubt, a grey cloud of darkness and meaninglessness in the face of death and injustice. This is part of their appeal. After all, why do we all love Scandinavian noir so much, as does this reviewer. Terribly bleak landscapes, even bleaker crimes, and a void on the horizon absent of any sense of meaning, let alone metaphysical relief. So it is refreshing to come across a writer like Darynda Jones who has taken a different tack, and offered us a bit of humor and hope in the face of the great beyond. Kudos to Ms. Jones for handling this so well!

Cosmic Powers and Super Humans

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Besides the ‘post-dead’ floating about offering advice and comment in the solving of the crime, there is also another luminous, ominous super-natural being introduced into the tale, a being more than human but still embodied in a really hot bod and offering all of the erotic heat a steamed up romance novel could dream off. And he actually has a human name, Reyes Alexander Harrow. I don’t wish to give away too much of the plot, but this being  provides both the hot steamy romantic sex that transports Charley herself into the stratosphere, and also gives the reader a window into the great  beyond, where we witness a battle between Good and Evil of cosmic proportions, in other words a clash of the principalities and powers. In this way, Darynda Jones tempers her vision of the afterlife with a strong dose of ‘reality’. Evil exists on the cosmic plane and its machinations dwarf all of our petty crimes here on earth. All is not sweetness and light as the ‘post-dead’ transition into the light.

I found out Reyes is a god of sex and all things orgasmic… 

In the deepest recesses of my mind, I realized I was suddenly half-naked and exposed to one of the most powerful beings on Earth. I just couldn’t remember him disrobing any part of me. Did he have super-stripper powers?

So the novel really contains three strands, the actual murder and subsequent7784a640de19da8def1d2b096f5ff3ddt search for the villains and their motives, which is convoluted enough, the afterlife existence of the post-dead hovering about and offering help, and the super-natural, super sexy, more-than-human-god-man who protects Charley in moments of peril and dishes out some really steamy, soul satisfying embodied sex. Wooeee baby!

Winding Up

I must confess that while I found the subplot of Reyes, the god of orgasmic sex, hugely entertaining, at times it overwhelmed the main plot line for me and the actual murder investigation seemed to fade into the background. It also seemed a bit too preposterous, but then I’m not really part of the proper demographic for this kind of steamy romance – so what do I know? (Yes, there are hints of the Twilight sagas here, only written in better prose.) And also, just as things seem to be getting a little too way out of hand, the author brings us back down to earth with a clunk and a guffaw, with some hilarious zingers that puncture the pretensions of this fantasy world.

I knew dating the Son of Satan would turn out badly. 

Likewise with the humor, there were moments when I began to feel the strain and feared the author was running out of steam. After all, this is a very difficult balancing act to maintain – murder with humor, metaphysical themes that point to a hidden depth of meaning, but only just lightly, post mortem humans wandering about, a super duper sex god, and cosmic battles of good and evil. Hard to hold all of these together without showing some strain. But then Ms. Jones would let fly with a zinger like this one below, regarding her dead aunt and the dead neighbor down the hall,  and I’d find myself back in the swing of things.

Alright, I’ll admit it, the thought of those two having hot, unsafe animal sex was a bit creepy, especially since my aunt didn’t have any teeth, but honestly, their body temperatures were just below freezing. How hot could it get?

Every time I thought the author was ‘losing it,’ she won me back with one of these howlers, leaving me guffawing on the subway. Mothers have learned to shield their children when I’m around. “Stay away from the weird man, Honzik.” I tip my hat to Darynda Jones for having provided such a saucy, entertaining read with a sassy, independent, outspoken female protagonist. But don’t be fooled. This isn’t lighthearted, escapist fare. Behind the witty humor and steamy sex, there is a hopeful, inspiring vision of life beyond the grave, whether it be the first grave on the right, or the sixth, seventh or eighth in the series.  This is an entertaining mystery with real depth and substance behind it.

A well deserved: ★ ★ ★ ★

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