Paul Donner, a New York police officer who was murdered in the early 21st century, finds himself brought back to life several decades later, in the wake of a viral attack that caused the “Shift.” Donner becomes part of the new underclass known as the “reborn”: reanimated corpses who gradually grow younger and who aren’t exactly appreciated by the living segment of New York’s population, trapped under the geodesic Blister that protects the rest of the world from the Shift virus. Lost in an unfamiliar future, Donner begins a quest for vengeance, uncovering secrets that are much larger than he initially expects. So begins Necropolis, the darkly entertaining “debut” novel by Michael Dempsey…
The quotation marks around the word “debut” are intentional: even though this is Michael Dempsey’s first published novel, he has an impressive writing résumé that includes award-winning TV shows and plays. All this experience shows up in Necropolis: not only is the novel considerably more accomplished than many debuts, the highly visual style Dempsey displays here really shows off his background in writing for stage and screen. This novel often reads like a movie — and if it’s ever filmed, I’ll be first in line to see it.
A large part of the fun is the odd, retro-futuristic future Michael Dempsey has created for Necropolis. The modern technology of the mid-21st century is wrapped in the fashions and styles of a hundred years earlier. Maglev Studebakers cruise down the streets, high-tech plasma weapons are designed to look like tommy guns, and people are dressed as if they just stepped out of The Maltese Falcon LINK. It’s a natural fit for Donner, the hard-drinking revived cop who, against his will, becomes a PI investigating his own death. He’s an almost classically noir gumshoe, aside from the fact that he happens to be a reborn corpse, with his Girl Friday Maggie a holographic “smarty” or artificial intelligence. In addition to trying to solve his own murder, he gets involved in a missing person case when he is hired by Nicole Struldbrug, a powerful Surazal executive, to locate a scientist who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Surazal is the all-powerful mega-corporation that’s building the Blister, providing security forces for the city, and researching a cure for the Shift virus.
Right from the start, it’s clear that Michael Dempsey is going to have some fun with this novel despite its grim title. Immediately after the monitors hooked up to Donner’s corpse start showing some spikes and beeps instead of a flatline, the author throws in the following reverse last rites:
A priest stepped from the shadows. He was young, not happy with his job. He bowed his head and made the sign of the cross. “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, the Lord giveth back. The Lord… can’t seem to make up his mind lately. Amen.” He put a dab of holy water on Donner’s forehead and fled.
Take that as a sign that it’s best not to take everything in Necropolis too seriously. There’s a certain goofiness to the deliberate way Dempsey sticks with his retro-futurist setting. The dialogues are so chock-full of period slang that it would be grating, if not for the fact that those lines are often spoken by reanimated corpses and artificial intelligences. At least some of the characters seem to be aware that they’re living in a pulp-fiction reality or at least play up their parts, dropping lines like “The plot thickens.” There’s even a Casablanca-themed bar. At one point, someone is upset that the revived Beatles are performing with Pete Best rather than John Lennon, who didn’t make it back to life. If some parts of the plot are a bit hokey, it’s all easy to forgive because this novel is so much plain fun to read.
At the same time, Necropolis has enough serious notes to make it more than just a light, fun read. Before his untimely death, Donner was an alcoholic cop, his marriage on the rocks, and those demons pursue him even past the grave. Michael Dempsey also plays on themes of corporate greed and social inequality, showing the misery of life as a second class reborn citizen, or the emotional toll of having a family member return as a reborn, in gritty detail. A perfect example of the “seriously kidding” tone of this novel happens in the aforementioned Casablanca-themed bar, when Mick the bartender pulls out a baseball bat after delivering the classic “We don’t serve your type in here” line to the reborn Donner.
The only issues I had with this otherwise sparkling debut are fairly minor. Early on, there’s a brief chapter with a “satellite intercept” transcript of a conversation between two unnamed characters. This segment unnecessarily lets the reader know that There’s More Going On Than Meets the Eye, and what’s worse, it gives away part of the Big Revelation at the end of the novel. The novel’s villain is a bit too over the top and makes a few decisions that don’t completely make sense. The name Struldbrug and company name Surazal made me groan a little bit. And finally, as mentioned before, there’s so much Bogart-era slang in the early parts of this novel that it occasionally may start grating a bit.
But all nitpicking aside, Necropolis is a wildly entertaining mish-mash of different elements: a dystopian, retro-futurist, noir whodunit with generous dashes of humor, horror, and romance. Hardboiled cops, reborn hookers, corporate intrigue, and an S&M club run by a revived QueenieSt. Clair all feature in a plot that goes from weird to wild to full-on crazy in no time. Necropolis is a dark, wild and tremendously fun ride.