Friday, September 10, 2010

A Conflict of Interests

I've always had a soft spot for cop stories – I've blogged my appreciation for Richard Price's wonderful “Lush Life”(Neighborhood Crime), I've sung the praises of “The Wire”, and I still enjoy watching old “Law and Order” episodes. So Doug Dorst's Alive In Necropolis, a novel about cops whose beat includes the seventeen cemeteries of Colma, California, had obvious appeal for me. On the other hand I've never been fond of ghost stories – I'm just too skeptical. 

So how do I feel about this story of Michael Mercer, a rookie cop assigned to the night shift, patrolling the living and the dead in Colma? Well, I liked the 'living' part. Predictably, I loved the 'cop-talk'. Dorst does a great job of capturing that insult-laden banter. And in Mercer he creates a believable young man approaching thirty, uncertain of what he wants in life, bouncing between the circles of his more successful and established college friends and the grittier world of his cop buddies. He even has a sort of romantic interest in each of these worlds, but in his uncertainty he doesn't handle either relationship very well. One foggy night he saves the life of the teenage son of a powerful San Francisco movie kingpin, trussed and abandoned in the cemetery by friends he refuses to incriminate. The consequences for this confused and angry boy, and Mercer's attempts to help him, are for me the most interesting plot line.

But then there's the 'dead' part. Woven through the story of Mike Mercer is the story of Colma's ghostly residents. Among them are San Francisco heiress Lily Coit, ballplayer Lefty O'Doul, a daredevil aviator named Lincoln Beachey and bank robber Doc Barker, and for reasons I failed to grasp they are at each others throats. I know, I know...they're already dead so how can they hurt each other? See...this is why I hate ghost stories.

Eventually Mercer, suffering from sleep deprivation and anxiety, becomes involved in the ghosts' disputes, and I'll just say that I liked the story much better when he was dealing with the living.  Dorst has an enjoyable style, and I admire his risky choice of subject matter, but I hope that next time he'll skip the ghosts and stick to the cops.

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