The Wrong Dead Guy by Richard Kadrey
Even if Richard Kadrey’s The Wrong Dead Guy (2017) didn’t have an elephant, a library and a grumpy mummy, I would love it for the comedic dialogue. This book has some of the crispest comic dialogue (not just banter) I’ve read in a very long time, maybe ever.
The Wrong Dead Guy is the second book in Kadrey’s ANOTHER COOP HEIST series. Cooper, who goes by Coop, is a thief specializing in magical items. He is immune to magic, which also means that he cannot wield it. His girlfriend Giselle, who works for the Department of Peculiar Science (DOPS), does use magic though, and sometimes Coop works with a ghost named Phil, who rides in Coop’s head during the heist.
Right now, Coop is reluctantly working for the DOPS himself, and gets an assignment to steal an Egyptian mummy from a down-at-the-heels museum. Little does he know that a hapless security guard eating a burger on shift has accidentally freed said mummy, in what is possibly the best use of mustard in a horror-comedy. Harkhuf, the mummy, was a powerful magician and wishes to reanimate his girlfriend. This part of the story may seem familiar, but the girlfriend mummy was no fragile princess; rather, a badass battle-queen whose greatest wish was to drown the world in fire and blood. Harkhuf thinks this will be a fine thing to do.
Coop, meanwhile, has been targeted by his nemesis, Nelson. Nelson is dead and currently works in the mailroom at DOPS. (Just go with it.) Nelson blames Coop for his death, and hopes to kill Coop so that Coop, as an undead or “mook,” will be assigned to the mailroom. Nelson creates one Machiavellian plan after another, and they really are Machiavellian, except he has to rely on the hired help, and that’s a challenge.
With the Department of Peculiar Science, the book feels a bit like the LAUNDRY FILES series by Charles Stross, with a definite Los Angeles flavor. That is a good thing. Mostly, though, The Wrong Dead Guy, like The Everything Box, felt like a madcap movie heist comedy, in all the best ways: snappy banter, hilarious visuals and sight gags, with likeable characters at the heart of it. Kadrey demonstrated his eye for the absurd in the SANDMAN SLIM books, but those books have a darker tone. With Coop, who is a less complicated and generally happier guy than James Stark, Kadrey lets his absurdist self off the leash. There is a magical library unlike the ones we’ve seen before. There is an elephant. There are animal-rights activists who live in a gated community, and they have some of the funniest dialogue ever as they try to speak without being “speciest.” There is a used car salesman emblematic of southern California. There is the grumpy mummy Harkhuf who is not pleased with the quality of thrall he is, well, enthralling in the modern age. I’m not even going to describe Coop’s helper, the Egyptologist Dr. Lupinsky, because when you read the book you deserve that have that pleasure unspoiled. And Kadrey gets maximum — maximum — mileage about of four words: Macho Taco Guy Lombardo.
Because of the mosaic style of storytelling, which relies on shifting points of view, I did think the story lost momentum in a few places. I’m not sure a long adventure in one of the wings of the DOPS facility delivered enough plot for its length. The story did not come together quite as smoothly as The Everything Box did, but I was still laughing and cringing most of the way through, which is what I expect to be doing through a Coop novel. I love that I can open this book to nearly any page and read a passage of dialogue that will make me laugh out loud. The Wrong Dead Guy is pure entertainment.
Good humor is hard to find in speculative fiction, and that’s a shame!