The Wrong Goodbye is Chris F. Holm’s second COLLECTOR adventure. Sam Thornton is a damned soul. In life he struck a deal with a demon to save his wife, who was dying of tuberculosis. It wasn’t enough that he traded his soul for her life; the demon corrupted him while he was still alive. Now Sam is pressed into service collecting and delivering other damned souls to Hell.
Things have gotten precarious since Sam’s last outing. The millennia-long cold war between Heaven and Hell has heated up, and the Chosen and the Fallen are engaging in public skirmishes, with human collateral damage. Sam’s problems, though, are more personal. A soul he is responsible for delivering has been hijacked by another Collector, Sam’s old friend Danny. Decades before, Sam, Danny, Ana and Quinn formed a secret “support group” of Collectors. This is forbidden, and when Hell got wind of it, they tortured Quinn and then “shelved” him. Ana has always blamed Sam for informing on Quinn, and Danny has not forgiven him — but Sam wasn’t the one who snitched, and he doesn’t know who did.
Danny uses the stolen soul as a bargaining chip to get Sam’s help. He says he is in trouble, but Sam is not softened, and refuses. Danny gives him back the soul anyway. Only… it’s not the right soul. Sam is intent on tracking down Danny and getting back the soul he is responsible for. His handler, Lilith, tells him that there is more at stake than just an eternity of suffering for him; there are consequences for the whole world, because something big is about to go down, and the soul Danny has taken is a big part of it.
Most of The Wrong Goodbye is a road trip — a strange, creepy, funny, sad road trip. Sam is joined on his travels by Gio, the substitute soul Danny foisted on him, who Sam has reconstituted into a recently-dead body. Gio was a low-level mobster, so green that he didn’t even realize the contract he made was with a demon. He is a gangster and a thug, yet Sam finds that Gio is growing on him. He grows on us, too. Along the way they connect with Roscoe, a tapped-out Texas oilman with an angry ex-wife, a drinking problem and a primo Cadillac. Well, they don’t actually connect with him so much as steal his car.
The trail takes Sam from Illinois to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and from a derelict, half-built-out housing tract in the New Mexico desert to the mother of all demon crack-houses, and finally to a Day of the Dead street party in Los Angeles. He encounters Ana, and later Dumas, the demon who made Sam’s deal, who is now successfully working as a “soul-skimmer.”
… The air was thick with oily smoke; it burned my throat and made my eyes water. But underneath its tarry bite was another scent, sour and unpleasant: a sulfurous reek that seemed to emanate from the very walls.
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” I muttered.
“I know, right?” Dumas replied, his eyes dancing with mirth in the torchlight. “I’m thinking of having a doormat made special.”
Holm loads the book up with humor and Sam’s gallows wit, but the book is not exactly funny. It is mostly tragic, because in between fleeing cops, demons and even creepier creatures called Deliverants, Sam meditates on the nature of Heaven and Hell, good and evil, and free will. The most poignant part of the book is a small section in the demon “skim house,” where demons inject themselves with tiny slivers of the human souls that are on their way to hell. Demons get off on the feelings. Sam is accidentally injected, and finds himself in the memory of a four-year-old girl at home: joyful, curious and embraced by loving parents. It’s a touching scene, except we know this soul is damned.
These books get discussed as “supernatural noir,” and Holm has an essay at the back where he talks about the tropes and conventions of “noir.” Sam is the ultimate noir hero, in a way. There is nothing he can do to undo his own fate, yet he still makes choices that are compassionate, altruistic, or what we mortals might consider “right.” While Sam rationalizes a lot of his decisions, he only fools himself:
Could’ve been worse, though. If I hadn’t seen him and cut left at the last minute, Theresa would’ve wound up pasted to his grill. I’m guessing getting Gio’s woman killed would’ve made him a whole lot less cooperative — and, you know, I would have felt bad and stuff too. So thank God for small favors.
The evil master plan of the plot seemed familiar, and this idea that there is a “nothingness” beyond Heaven and Hell seems to be a common trope these days, but Sam’s way of saving the day was so simple it surprised me, and it was clever. The real point of these books is not how Sam outwits the demon, anyway; it’s his struggle to remain as human as he can, given that he is dead, working for a demon, and doomed.
Holm is working this sub-genre (sub-sub-genre?) really well. Sam is a consistent character, he speaks with an authentic voice, and there is enough plot and action to carry us along. Secondary characters are well-defined. I will continue to read the stories about this particular damned soul who still struggles to do the right thing.