Braineater Jones resurrects the hardboiled Detective genre with a zombie twist. There, now that I've gotten my cheesy one-liner you can put on a cover out of the way, I'll get to the actual review. Braineater Jones is an unconventional Detective story and zombie novel in one. Fans coming in expecting your typical shambling undead are going to be disappointed as Stephen Kozeniewski decides to do something different with them.
The book's zombies are intelligent, personable, and engaging creatures who just have the small problem of being dead. They bear the scars of injuries but rot at an exceptionally slow rate, engaging in many of the past-times they used to while alive (including, yes, THAT). A lot of time is spent describing how the walking dead maintain themselves in this novel. One undead woman maintains her body using plaster and the tools a 1930s mortician might. After so many years of vampirism being treated as a sexy wonderful gift, it was nice to see someone show undeath being disgusting.
The book opens with a two page forward by the author pre-apologizing for the fact the book would contain 1930s racism, homophobia, and sexism. This put me on guard and made me wonder if I should continue on but it proved to be an unnecessary warning. Aside from the occasional slur against Italians, the book goes out of its way to underscore how stupid the prejudices of the time were. One black character gets the chance to talk about how irritating it is white people think of him as an easy mark while there's a surprise revelation of a character's bisexuality I found to be quite bold.
Indeed, the zombies of the book serve as an applicable metaphor for the oppressed of the time period. They live in slums, are ignored by municipal services, and are deliberately targeted by the city officials in hopes they'll leave town. Even other minorities and oppressed peoples despise the undead. This allows them to serve as a stand-in for any number of groups from blacks to the poor to gays.
Tolkien spoke about how The Lord of the Rings was not a metaphor for World War 2 but applicable to discussions of it, which makes it far less likely to go out of style. The zombie situation does not replace the suffering of RL groups but serves as a underscore of them. It's sort of like my opinion of the X-men. They would not be nearly so effective as a weapon against racism if not for our heroes, in addition to being mutants, were a mixture of RL minority groups.
None of this would be particularly interesting if the social commentary didn't have a good story attached to it and this book does. Braineater Jones apes a pseudo-Noir style which invokes such films as Sunset Boulevard (our hero wakes up dead in a pool), Sam Spade, Pulp magazines, and a half-dozen other sources. The actual plot is mostly a series of vignettes as Jones deals with one problem after another. He's a private eye of questionable talents but that doesn't stop him from getting into all the troubles one might expect from a zombie in a city of predators.
I found the character of Braineater Jones, himself, to be particularly evocative. He has an extremely complex and nuanced character which starts off appearing as an amalgamation of every 1930s P.I. in pop culture but gradually reveals a much-deeper persona. Jones is capable of great compassion and empathy but also ignorance. His amnesia and discovery of who he once was makes a compelling plot for once as the results may not be what he expects.
Does the book have flaws? Yes. One of the twists involving the character of Lazar didn't work for me and the book's latter use of Pulp's most overused villains is unnecessary. Even if there was a point to their presence, and there was, I would have preferred them to be kept out of the story. Likewise, while I usually applaud character death, a number of enjoyable ones perish before the story was "done" with them.
These flaws are not overwhelming ones, however, and are just part of what makes a book distinct. I'd also like to pause and state that I consider the cover of this book to be a triumph of marketing as it immediately made me want to purchase and read the book. It reminded me of Watchmen and that's never a bad thing.
In conclusion, Braineater Jones is a great novel. It's probably the most original zombie novel I've read in years and deserves significant kudos. The author should be proud and while I doubt this will become a series, I'd definitely read a sequel.
Buy at Amazon.com