The Happier Dead by Ivo Stourton (Solaris, Feb.2014)-When I started The Happier Dead, I expected a British procedural peppered with some SF elements, and I got that, but it’s really so much more…. Ok, so, here’s the gist: It’s 2035, and DCI Rob Oates is called to the scene of a brutal stabbing that’s taken place within the environs of The Great Spa. The Great Spa caters to those that have gone through the Treatment, but have had…problems. The Treatment takes those that can afford it back to an age usually somewhere between 20 to 25 (this is ultimately up to the person receiving the Treatment), and immortality is granted as part of the package. Britain has a monopoly on this technology, which of course give them quite a leg up on the world stage. However, immortality comes with a price. When one lives too long, one can become bored and require more extreme experiences in order to enjoy life, which can lead to bad things, even psychopathy, so in order to combat that, The Great Spa was built five years ago and contains a whole other reality that grants the new-young a sort of rebirth that will hopefully rejuvenate and rebuild their damaged souls. When Oates arrives at The Great Spa (technically called Avalon), he’s informed that they already have a suspect in custody, and he’s confessed. Oates is particularly good at ferreting out Eddys, which are people that have been paid to confess and serve time for someone else’s crimes, often with the promise of ultimately receiving the Treatment. Oates’s gut tells him this man, Ali Fazool, is innocent, but he confessed, so proving it is going to be the trick, and he may not have much time, because rioting has begun around the city by those that oppose The Treatment and what it promises, and tensions are rising to deadly levels.
So much for just a gist, huh? It’s really not a simple premise at all, and in fact, the author covers some pretty heavy themes but manages to cleverly wrap them up in a book with the pacing of a police thriller. As Oates begins his investigations, he learns that the dead man has ties to the Treatment’s creator, who has been missing for quite some time. It turns out he was working on something else, something with heinous implications, and there are factions, like the Mortal Reform, that will do anything to stop it. Oates is fighting not only the escalating violence around him, but also the violence in his own past, and his current capacity to do harm. He loves his wife and two boys deeply, but also carries the pain of his daughter’s death like a shroud. And for Oates, pain is a weapon for those that would seek to take him down. The Happier Dead takes place over only a few days, and particularly creepy are the scenes within The Great Spa, which for Oates is like stepping into a façade, a farce, but for the people within, it’s an escape, and a state of the art one. Its overseer, Miranda, almost takes on a supernatural aura, as not only the brilliant mind that had a hand in the Treatment’s creation, but also as the seemingly all powerful entity in charge of the new-young within the facility. She’s also a new-young herself, and the new-young are just kind of creepy. They just are…you’ll see.
Oates is my favorite kind of cop, and it doesn’t hurt that I’m a huge fan of British procedurals. When he dons his body armor and steps out onto the streets of London, he feels protected from the violence that always seems to be simmering just under the city’s surfaces. He’s not afraid to use his considerable size to intimidate, but is always wary of giving into more violent impulses. It’s a razor thin tipping point for our hero, and he knows it. As I got to know him, I began to understand how someone like him would find the Treatment attractive, and it’s for that reason that his resistance to the very idea of it is all the more poignant. Immortality, murder, class warfare, and a city on the very brink all come together in this fantastic book. I wouldn’t mind seeing more books with DCI Oates, but if this is the only one, that’s ok, because it’s a helluva book. Ivo Stourton writes with a very sure hand for such a relatively young author (he’s also written The Night Climbers and The Book Lover’s Tale), and The Happier Dead deserves to reach a wide audience. If you like genre benders that make you think, but are very accessible, this one is for you.