July 23, 2015
(++++) THINKING HURTS
Killing Pretty: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $25.99.
James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, Richard Kadrey’s wonderfully foul-mouthed, ill-mannered, noir-as-they-come antihero, does indeed say “thinking hurts” in Kadrey’s latest novel, Killing Pretty. He just happens to say it to Lucifer while he and the former ruler of Hell – actually they are both former rulers of Hell, but that is, or was, another story – are taking a stroll on Hollywood Boulevard, near the Museum of Death.
Things are always weird in Sandman Slim’s world, and just when you think they cannot possibly get any weirder, they do. Kadrey is a poet of damnation, a worshipper of all that is unseemly and downright disgusting in human beings and, in particular, in people who live in, under and about Los Angeles. Killing Pretty has some of the most wonderful prose about L.A. that anyone has written since the days of Nathanael West: “Los Angeles is a busted jukebox in a forgotten bar at the ass end of the high desert. The city only exists between the pops, skips, and scratches of the old 45s. Snatches of ancient songs. Lost voices. The jagged artifacts of a few demented geniuses, one-hit wonders, and lip-synching fiends. Charlie Manson thought he was going to be the next Beatles and we know how that turned out. This city is built on a bedrock of high crimes and rotten death. The Black Dahlia. Bugsy Siegel. The Night Stalker. We’ve buried and forgotten more bodies than all the cemeteries of Europe. Someday the water is going to run out and the desert will strip this town down to its Technicolor bones. Even the buzzards won’t want it and the city knows it. Maybe that’s why I like it.”
This is beyond purple prose – it disappears into the ultraviolet. And it is the best thing about Killing Pretty, which, in terms of plot, is not really at the highest level of which Kadrey is capable: it is too earthbound, or too L.A.-bound, which is not quite the same thing. Sandman Slim’s supernatural abilities are absent or severely compromised here, and he is making a diligent attempt to be just the sort of noir-ish private eye on whose adventures Kadrey bases the whole Sandman Slim series – a kind of self-referential, eating-its-own-tail structure that sounds cleverer than it turns out to be. Stark without the powers of the Room of 13 Doors and the Qomrama – key elements of previous books – is perilously close to ordinary. Or would be, if Kadrey didn’t write so well about him and didn’t throw in, time and time again, amazing passages about the environs in which Stark operates: “The 405 freeway is the yellow brick road after the apocalypse. A winding stretch of paved bullshit choked with bumper-to-bumper demon drivers and banshee kids wailing away for the SpongeBob juice box Mommy and Daddy left on the kitchen counter. Road rage was invented along this cursed road. Murders and suicides are planned in the stinking miasma of stalled trucks and overheating Hondas, enough to fill all the graveyards in California and more. The 405 is one breakdown away from turning into the Donner Party. Starvation and cannibalism. Movie producers gnawing on starlets’ severed legs. School-bus Little League teams crunching on the coach’s skull.”
This defiantly deviant descriptiveness, an ongoing tribute to the noir detective thrillers of old, makes Killing Pretty a pleasure despite the comparative weakness of its plot. That is, compared with the plots of other Sandman Slim books. On its own, the plot certainly sounds gripping enough: it has to do with someone having killed Death, so nobody is dying anymore, and that is causing extremely uncomfortable circumstances for everything from organized religion to the various organizations that trade in ghosts and other post-death revenants. Explained that way, the plot sounds pretty darned riveting; but Sandman Slim has been deprived of many of the techniques and capabilities that have made him so intriguing through half a dozen earlier novels, and now is more or less just another Sam Spade type, albeit with more profanity and occasional forays into the occult. The hunt for Death’s killer – that is, for whatever person or entity got the supernatural Death stuck in a human body in a way that prevents Death from escaping and doing his job – meanders here and there, with readers who know Stark surely wishing he would start destroying stuff to get to the goodies inside. But Stark in Killing Pretty operates more or less within the rules, for reasons made clear at the end of the previous book, The Getaway God. He has not exactly been emasculated, but he has become less interesting as he tries to conform to the new rules of engagement – for which he is himself largely responsible.
And yet the prose in which Kadrey describes Stark’s hunt for Death’s killer is so good that it almost makes up for the fact that the plot of Killing Pretty is (again, at least by comparison with that of the previous Sandman Slim books) on the weak side. Here is Stark explaining to his new head-of-detective-agency boss the difference between “just plain crazy” and “L.A. crazy.” He tells her, “L.A. crazy is when you don’t just kill someone, you turn it into a cheap made-for-TV movie. The Wonderland killings, starring Laurel Canyon money, dope, and porn. B-horror-movie killers like the Hillside Strangler and the Night Stalker. It’s Charlie Manson hanging out with the Beach Boys because he thinks they’re going to make him a rock star. It’s the Black Dahlia, a murder so strange a lot of people didn’t believe it at first. Hell, I’m babysitting Death. That’s what I’m talking about. L.A. crazy.”
There is, of course, method to Kadrey’s madness, as he has Stark pursue various leads and tackle various unsavory characters in various places in and around L.A. But the case does not so much come together as stumble into place – there is little feel here either that Stark has bulled his way to an answer or that he has detected his way there. It all just sort of happens. The eventual discovery of one linchpin of the plot, involving a woman who cheated Death in the past, is rather anticlimactic, because her only reason for so earthshaking an activity turns out to be that she was not ready to go yet. This is all too trivial to make the cosmic implications stick. There is also a sense in which Killing Pretty itself never really goes anywhere: with Stark now confined to the human world, that world seems even pettier and more constricted than in earlier Kadrey books. Kadrey has Stark himself express some of this, rather late in the game: “Part of me feels very far from home. I’m sure as hell a long way from where this case started. From Vincent [Death] finding me at Bamboo House of Dolls, I’ve skated from Laurel Canyon to the world of old-school mobsters right into a necromancer dead end. All the way to Himmler’s book club and séance rooms in twenties Munich, then back further to pelt-wearing Teutonic horsemen, all the way to the Thule group’s Hyperborea. But the thing is, throughout this weird ramble, I never really left Hollywood. Once I make it through all the craziness, where do I track the source of and solution to this whole mess? To a fucking playhouse off Sixth Street where entrepreneurial Nazi shitheads are staging nightly pageants, like Andy Hardy and Betsy Booth doing a musical in a barn.”
Even readers who do not get all the pop-culture and Hollywood-history references – it’s OK, you can look them up – are bound to find this sort of writing gripping, and certainly the summation makes it sound as if there has been a long, strange, and exceptionally bizarre trail followed here. But Killing Pretty is a book whose plot summarizes better than it progresses. Sandman Slim is still a fabulous character, and Kadrey’s ability to write about him remains unmatched. But Stark himself – and the characters surrounding him, including his girlfriend Chihiro (formerly the creature-of-nightmares Jade named Candy, now incognito) and his sort-of-partner Kasabian – are diminished here, less interesting than they have been and involved in lesser activities. So, all right, Kadrey has tried, really tried, to have Stark play somewhat nice. Good for him. But as Lucifer comments to Stark about an ongoing conflict in Heaven, “I think the whole thing could be solved by cutting off a few heads.” That has been Sandman Slim’s approach, too – not elegant, but undeniably effective. Perhaps he will get back to it in the next book. Until he does, the descriptive writing alone puts Killing Pretty severed-head-and-shoulders above most of today’s supernatural urban fiction.