Thomas Usher is one of an increasing number of characters in novels and on TV who talk to dead people and make a living out of it. McMahon sets this up straightforwardly and with much disclaimer. Not the "I am not the kid in the movie" but "I am not a Raymond Chandler private eye." I like this. It means we're over the basic 'what if' premise, have accepted it (because it's uncomplicated) and can move into the story. It also means we know Usher's a reader and where he lives and quite a bit about his personality. And I've been giving too many manuscript critiques recently and really ought to stick to writing this as a review. Sorry, folks. Usher is introduced effectively and even likeably. It's important. The first twenty pages don't quite lift of and certainly don't give an indication that the book will become gripping, but they say stuff that's important, and will continue to be important.
Why is it important? Because this novel would be very depressing if Usher weren't likeable. It's about death. It shows death. It discusses death. For anyone with a passing familiarity with death, it's confronting. Not because it touches deep chords, but because instead of describing the moment of death or the emotions of a dead person, it describes dead people. Corpses, wraiths: dead people. The novel always comes back to them.
All this fits neatly into a normal horror detective tale. The sort with a touch of Sam Spade. It's an increasingly popular sub-genre. This isn't even the first Angry Robot has put out (Nekropolis is quite different in many ways, but it's still got the horror and it still has the unravelling of problems at work to bring the plot together). The focus is slightly different to most, however. This slight difference, this reality of corpses and vacancy of death makes this novel just a bit different to its peers. It makes sense of the changes and why the theme springboards into what it finally becomes. Which is good. I'm very happy to see variants and new ways into topics. I particularly love to see consequences and the unravelling of a person when they're confronted with death and how that unravelling continues and continues when death won't go away and then things change and you have to deal, even though you're unravelled and have almost given up. Because I've seen it happen in real life. It makes McMahon's novel more real. It is, if you like, a variant on a Batman theme: grief hurts and when it hurts enough, it can turn us into amazing people who do amazing things. The achievements and the heroicism doesn't stop the grief, or cure it. It still hurts. This truth is at the core of Pretty Little Dead Things.
This truth doesn't get in the way of tight plotting and good characterisation and nice movement from the personal grief to the wider danger, but I rather suspect it will determine the novel's audience.