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A Dirty Job
Christopher Moore
Orbit paperback £6.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

This is the problem with having expectations: they may not be fulfilled, and then you'll be disappointed. I'd heard great things about Chris Moore's comic novels, and was excited at the prospect of reading and reviewing one for the first time. Unfortunately, though, A Dirty Job turned out to be something of a mixed bag.

Charlie Asher owns a second-hand goods shop in San Francisco. As the book begins, his wife Rachel has just given birth; she dies soon after of a blood clot in the brain. Later, Charlie begins to see certain objects glowing red; he discovers they are 'soul vessels' and he has become a 'Death Merchant', charged with collecting the soul vessels of people about to die (who may not know that they are) within a certain number of days; he then sells the objects in his shop, where they will automatically be found by their next rightful owner. But, if Charlie fails to retrieve a soul vessel in time, its energy will be stolen by the three harpies of the Morrigan, who are growing in strength beneath the city and preparing for the final showdown - which will come on Charlie's watch...

First things first: this is a comedy, so how funny is it? Quite funny, I would say: Moore's humour tends towards the situational and observational, and sometimes it works very well; there's one point where Charlie goes to collect the soul vessel of a beautiful young woman, only to find that her soul is housed in her breast implants - you may guess the rest, but it still made me laugh out loud. Sadly, the guffaws weren't common; far more often, Moore's jokes only raised a smile - and some didn't even do that; there are too many running gags in A Dirty Job that just get tedious.

Still, there's more to the novel than jokes. I think it's important that writers of comic fantasy don't concentrate so much on the comedy that they neglect the fantasy; and, I'm pleased to say, Moore doesn't do that here. The idea of the Death Merchants is an interesting one that engenders a good story. However, I think the novel itself is that bit too long to present the story to its best effect: it's particularly interesting while the full ramifications of Charlie's situation are still becoming clear; but the book sags in the middle, where the Morrigan are building up their power (though that doesn't always come across clearly); and the ending seems to arrive in a rush.

There's a further side to A Dirty Job, which is that, for all its humour, it has a serious heart: Moore dedicates the novel to a friend "who was as generous in sharing her death as she was in sharing her life" and "to hospice workers and volunteers all over the world." His book deals, of course, with one of the weightiest subjects possible; and Moore has the skill to produce genuinely poignant scenes, such as that of Rachel's sudden death, and one where Charlie visits an old woman on her deathbed and realises he hasn't been grasping at life as strongly as he perhaps should have been. But these don't sit so easily alongside some of the lighter moments. There's a point where Charlie finds that his daughter can kill people just by pointing at them and saying, 'Kitty!' - that scene can't help but make its deaths seem comedic, and it contributes to a certain unevenness of tone that weakens the novel.

So, my first Christopher Moore book; and it's not bad, but its disparate elements don't fit together as well as I'd have liked. Will that make it my last Christopher Moore book as well? Probably not, actually: I'm intrigued enough to read another. But I'd have preferred a better introduction to his work than this; on that basis, if you are unfamiliar with Moore, I would suggest taking a chance on another of his books rather than starting with A Dirty Job.
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

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