No Words Wasted Sale

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, September 3rd, 2002


Who's Who in Hell

by Robert Chalmers

A review by Elizabeth Judd

What if the obituaries became a vehicle for unapologetic heckling? That's the extended joke at the heart of Robert Chalmers's energetic debut novel chronicling the travails of Daniel Linnell, an obituarist at a prestigious London paper where death notices are packaged as popular entertainment. Daniel's days consist of perusing news articles for "the fatal hint" anything from an actual illness to "a report that a star had been partying too vigorously." Gravitating toward famous subjects with lurid pasts, he takes a stash of unpublishably nasty obits and begins writing a compendium of the world's depraved, titled Who's Who in Hell. Outside the newsroom Daniel falls in love with a thrill-seeking American named Laura, and the two use his book advance to visit her home town of Bedford, Kansas. There they dine nightly with her repressed and disapproving parents and encounter various midwestern eccentrics, whom Daniel shocks with his ghoulish professional tastes.

Chalmers is clearly tickled by the Who's Who premise, and spends dozens of pages having Daniel consider the relative merits of including the Marquis de Sade, King Herod, Pol Pot, and Margaret Thatcher. But Daniel's flippant commentaries would need to be devastatingly funny to overcome his morbid subject matter and they're not. Recently named one of The Guardian's young British novelists to watch, Chalmers has been compared to Nick Hornby. Their heroes share some qualities they're young, English, hip, and male and the authors share an interest in the comic potential of haplessness, but the similarities end there. Hornby creates fully realized protagonists, whose misadventures achieve a genuine poignancy, whereas Chalmers, even in his less frenetic moments, favors snappy comebacks over characterization. Laura, for instance, functions as a tireless, and ultimately tiresome, purveyor of wisecracks, a brassy raconteur who compares her mother's life to Belarus (both have "a history of eclipse and surrender"). Unfortunately, most of Chalmers's jokes are literary cul-de-sacs, laugh lines leading absolutely nowhere. Daniel's Who's Who is unceremoniously ditched in an abrupt half paragraph midway through the story (the book is apparently too libelous to print); by the time Chalmers reinvents his novel as an exploration of marriage, fidelity, and mortality, the reader has chased a few red herrings too many.

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