Chris F. Holm’s first novel, Dead Harvest, is supernatural noir at its best. Sam Thornton, who is as surely named for Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade as he is for the Hebrew judge of the Bible, is the best sort of hero to serve as the basis for a series (THE COLLECTOR): despite being damned, he still has a strong sense of right and wrong, and refuses to do wrong whenever he has the option.
The novel is based on one occasion when Sam has that option. His job is to collect damned souls to speed them on their way to their eternal punishment. His boss, Lilith (whom he always calls “Lily,” which she hates), has assigned him to collect the soul of Kate MacNeil, who has just killed her entire family. There is no doubt about this, because she tortured her mother until the police showed up, when she ended it by slitting her mother’s throat in their full view. But when Sam reaches into her chest to collect her soul, he is nearly blinded by the bright white light of her innocence — and more, he learns that something took possession of her body to commit those murders.
Sam doesn’t know how this could have happened, but he does know that if an innocent soul is damned to hell for all eternity, it will set off a battle between angels and demons that will destroy the world. He kidnaps Kate from the hospital in hopes of giving himself time to figure out what to do. That is adventure enough, but things get much messier very fast. First, Sam’s superiors in the realms of hell (hell being situated here on earth, as well as everywhere else; it’s a condition, not a place per se) try to convince him to complete his task. Next, an angel — one of the seraphim, no less — attempts the same bit of persuasion. But when all manner of persuasion fails, things start to get ugly very quickly, and they get uglier by the second.
Sam is one of those guys who doesn’t give up, no matter what. Send angels and demons after him; bash him with a car; stab him with a knife; he still won’t go down. In the midst of a whirlwind of action, Sam is also trying to figure out why anyone would want him to collect a soul that doesn’t warrant damnation, a thorny problem causing Sam — and the reader — to consider the questions of free will and eternity.
Dead Harvest will make you stretch your lunch hours and stay up far later than is good for you, as the action propels the book along at a good clip. And the heavier philosophical and theological questions posed will keep you thinking about Sam and his universe long after you’ve turned the last page. I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, The Wrong Goodbye, which is scheduled for publication in September.
One more note: I thought I was completely over the “distressed” cover motif, but this cover, apparently the brainchild of Marc Gascoigne at Angry Robot and executed by a group called Amazing 15, is really a lovely example of the genre. It looks like a beat-up old paperback of 1940s vintage. Very nicely done.