Kill the Dead: A Sandman Slim Novel
by Richard Kadrey
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
In Richard Kadrey's previous novel, his eponymous antihero Sandman Slim (aka James Stark), escapes from Hell on a mission of vengeance against the people who sent him there, body and soul, and killed the woman he loved. It was a rollicking exercise in supernatural noir, channeling equal parts John Constantine and Philip Marlowe.
Kadrey's second Sandman Slim novel, Kill the Dead, hits the ground running on the first page, with Stark hunting a vampire as part of a contract job for the Golden Vigil, a Men-in-Black-type Homeland Security agency dedicated to the neutralization of supernatural threats. Yes, chasing a vampire isn't anything new, but when the pursuer is a Nephilim (the offspring created by humans and angels) with a bad attitude, and the vampire is a teeny-bopper armed with a flame-thrower and "the kind of smile that got Troy burned to the ground," you know this isn't your typical urban fantasy.
The crux of the novel centers on the arrival of Lucifer on Stark's home turf of Los Angeles to participate in the making of his biopic Light Bringer. It turns out that Satan has a lot more to worry about than rewrites and production overruns, and he hires Stark as his bodyguard. Of course, there's more to this gig than meets the eye, and soon Stark finds himself caught in the crosshairs of both an oncoming zombie apocalypse and a power grab for the control of Hell (which Stark calls Downtown) being led by his nemesis, Mason, a guy who even makes Satan nervous.
What is evident in reading both Sandman Slim and Kill the Dead is that Kadrey has a deep affection for cinema. He writes with a cinematic sense of action and pacing. It's no mistake that these books have no chapters. Just like a good movie, there is very little break in the action, and if you're the type of person who reads with the idea that "as soon as I finish this chapter, I'll go to bed," you're not going to get any sleep reading Kill the Dead.
Kadrey even throws in a character named Kinski (a nod to the famously deranged actor Klaus Kinski), and make Stark's front operation a video rental shop called Max Overload (making it easier for the characters to riff on films like Mario Bava's Black Sunday and spaghetti Western The Grand Silence) for the outre movie junkies at home.
The other enjoyable aspect of Kill the Dead is Kadrey's hardboiled sensibility. Almost every page has some kind of bon mot that goes for the jugular, and almost all of them can't be repeated in polite company (although I'm still dying for an excuse to describe somebody as looking like a "scarecrow with a migraine"). Happily, Kadrey's Mickey-Spillane-on-steroids prose never feels forced, propelling the story with more horsepower than the average urban fantasy (e.g., Jim Butcher's Dresden Files).
Any series worth its salt should be readable in any order, and a prior familiarity of Sandman Slim isn't a firm requirement for enjoying Kill the Dead. The events of the first novel are referenced in passing, filling in the gaps as needed (although readers new to the series may be wondering why Stark's assistant Kasabian is a disembodied head). And, thankfully, Kadrey sets the stage nicely for an upcoming third book, tentatively titled Aloha from Hell, without resorting to cheap cliffhanging gimmicks.
Kill the Dead isn't so much more of the same as it is taking everything that worked in the first novel and successfully cranking it to eleven. As pop-culture sequels go, this is at the Empire Strikes Back, Dark Knight, and Godfather Part II level of being better than the original.