The Oxford Paragraphs and Shakespeare review copies and everything else the rate has slowed. It perhaps doesn’t help that some of these Who books take so long to read in and of themselves. These 287 pages have equalled about eight days, so small is the font, so baroque the narrative. If this had been printed “supermarket” style, with larger font and thicker pages I’m sure it would have been twice the length. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’m so used to spinning through locations on a Kindle, I’m out of practice with pages.
I know, I know, shuffle along old man. None of this has anything to do with the actual book, so perhaps you’re right, let’s move things on. The City of the Dead opens as seems to formula for the EDAs with the adventure already in motion. The Doctor and his friends are in New Orleans aiding Rust, a local detective with his murder enquiry, though as ever they’re more interested in the charm which was stolen from the curiosity shop formerly owned by the corpse. Everyone in the vicinity is hiding something and it’s up to our heroes to unravel the mystery. What a mystery it is, unspooling with the breathless velocity of a left-handed hummingbird and to such a degree its sometimes difficult to track exactly where the story has taken us. Which is my way of admitting I wasn’t always able to follow the plot. I know, I know, shuffle along old man.
Lloyd Rose is the pen name of Sarah Tonyn,* who the “about the author” section informs us “lives in a treacle well with her two sisters Nora Penefrin and Doe Pamine” and that, sweetly knows "she will never write anything as good as The Curse of the Fatal Death, she leads a life of quiet dispair”. Random facts: she was once a critic for The Washington Post. Here she is reviewing Branagh’s film version of Hamlet. She also wrote an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets. Even in the wilderness years, Doctor Who was a magnet for unusual and disparate talents. To what extent does her nationality affect the book? Well, it’s a rare occasion when US characters in the Whoniverse actually sound like they’re really from the US rather than some movie version filtered through British ears. It’s also a rare occasion in that period when some Doctor Who’s written by a woman, a discussion for another time.
But of all the recent novels, or at least the novels I’ve read recently, this is one of the strongest character-wise. All of the city’s inhabitants from homicide cops to local mystics to barkeeps are pitched above the usual tentacle fodder to become compelling characters with the potential capacity to exist outside of this novel, never truly simple functionaries of the plot. The best example is Swan, an artist’s muse, a shawl wearing broken flower of a woman of the kind I’ve met in the real life who you’re honour bound to fall in love with even though they’ll never notice you in a million years and on the rare occasions that they do they’ll ruin your life, manic pixie dream girls all. In one excellent scene Fitz finally notices her but knows in his bones that even thinking about anything in relation to anything related to her would be very bad, leaving Anji to pick up the pieces.
Because the novel’s other relatively unique quality is Rose’s understanding of the regulars. Despite his amnesia, the Eighth Doctor’s not been this in-character for quite some time, infuriating his various captors with his chipperness in the face of their utter callousness as his consciousness is buffeted along through a series of nightmares which underpin his curiosity. Anji and Fitz are rather bystanders to all this, but like some of the best of Who, we’re just happy to be around their screwball double act, a flirty electricity which is right out of It Happened One Night as she berates him for his chain smoking just as he’s consoling her over a potential love affair. Firing on every cylinder, Rose even allows Anji a dramatic moment of self-realisation as to what her role actually is as companion. It’s worth quoting in full:
“But what if the Doctor’s not there? What if something’s happened to him?” Anji banged the car door with her fist, not hard but loudly, “I mean isn’t this what he has companions for? So that we can be somewhere else when he gets in trouble and come and rescue him? We’re bloody well letting our side down, aren’t we?”
The atmosphere of New Orleans feels dead on too, if you’ll pardon the expression. Written, published and set four years before Katrina, there is nevertheless a sense of doom pervading the city emanating from the levees. As Fitz notices half way through, for a place which is supposed to be the city of Jazz, there are few places in which the music can be heard. It rains constantly too as though the city’s being warned of menaces to come. Some of that also has to do with the magic that pervades the air. This is very much a voodoo interpretation of the city in which nearly all the locals have their hand in some kind of magic and no one’s décor is complete without a few skulls and if this wikipedia page is anything to go by, all of that’s extremely accurate too. Rose’s book fits neatly into the genre which brought us the spookier elements of Live and Let Die and would later background The Skeleton Key.
Actually perhaps most interesting element of the book is the treatment of magic which, almost like the Buffyverse, is a standard part of their existence in this era or area. Spells are attempted with some expectation they may succeed and frequently they do and ghosts are talked about as a fact of life, and not because of some potential intradimensional Cybermen. I’ve seen reviewers which suggest that this breaks the standard rational universe approach to the series and from a certain point of view it does seem to ignore Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. But the Doctor rarely refers to “magic” without some form of inverted commas, the hint being that whatever forces are being harnessed are not terran in origin (at one point he remembers Artron Energy) and whatever devils or demons may be appearing, they’re probably friends of Abaddon or the Daemon.
Also worth mentioning is the novel’s franchise awareness. Throughout, the Doctor’s amnesia almost paralyses him, bits of knowledge spilling out but so much else hidden from him and that’s accentuated by his nightmares, filled with contextless images from his past. Except I’m rather in the same position because as the Tardis Index File explains, they’re all from various points in the entire run of the Virgin New Adventures most of which I haven’t read, but which Rose was apparently a huge fan of which led to her requesting this commission. That’s interesting because from early on, BBC Books were quite clear that the two series were unconnected but just five years later it’s allusions agogo and about as exciting as when Charley Pollard was mentioned in the IDW comics or Arkadian turned up in a Doctor Who Adventures strip. More of that please.
* Updated 3/7/2012 No it isn't. It's a joke. It even says so on her wikipedia page, thanks Mark Clapham. I'd been reading it out loud with a different pronunciation.