The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox (book review).

February 10, 2022 | By | Reply More

‘The Dying Squad’ is Adam Simcox’s debut novel. It’s far from being his first work of creative fiction though. Simcox is a British filmmaker whose first feature sold to Netflix, while his next two won awards. So I had high expectations when I started reading the book. I’m glad to say, those expectations were exceeded by quite some margin.

The story starts out with the gritty realism of a thousand police procedurals. Detective Inspector Joe Lazarus is on a stakeout in rural Lincolnshire, bemoaning the fact that he’s watching a drugs gang’s safe house from a safe but uncomfortable roadside ditch filled with ice-cold water. He’s wondering whether it’s time to bust the place, mainly so he can get into the warm, when a gangly young woman with bright pink hair strolls over to the ditch, jumps down next to him and strikes up a conversation.

Daisy-May Braithwaite introduces herself, points out just how deathly quiet the safe house is and persuades Lazarus to investigate. Once inside, they’re confronted with multiple victims of horrendous gunshot wounds, all past helping. None of this shocks the world-weary Lazarus, until he finds a final victim upstairs. It’s a man his age, wearing his clothes, who could easily be his identical twin. That’s when Daisy-May reveals the truth. Lazarus is staring down at his own, very recently deceased body. He’s a ghost.

Joe refuses to accept the evidence of his own eyes and tries to convince himself that Daisy-May is lying. However, this becomes more difficult a few minutes later when an armed response unit arrives, comes upstairs and walks straight through him. At this point, Daisy-May grabs Joe’s arm and drags him into an altogether different realm.

After an extremely painful transition, Joe finds himself on a featureless plain, knee-deep in fog, below a roiling sky of crimson, grey and black. Daisy-May takes him to see her boss, the Duchess, and between them they explain what’s going on. They’re in a place they call ‘the Pit’ where the Duchess is in charge of a supernatural team of detectives colloquially called ‘the Dying Squad’. Daisy-May is one of their number and the Duchess wants Joe to partner up with her to solve a murder case: his own.

Not having much else to do, Joe reluctantly accepts. However as time goes on, he starts to lose his memories. Worse, as they investigate his death, some of the evidence they come across seems to cast doubt on his holier-than-thou self-image. So who was the real Joe Lazarus and why was he killed?

The fact that Simcox makes films for a living is evident from the very first page of this book. The story is told with great visual flair as chapter after chapter unveils one unusual character after another, each located within a series of extraordinarily cinematic vistas.

Our central duo of DI Joe Lazarus and Daisy-May Braithwaite initially seem to fit one clear stereotype of crime fiction. Joe is the ultimate detective, while Daisy-May is the smart, sassy sidekick that humanises him. Before long, we’re exposed to hints of something different. Maybe Joe isn’t quite as perfect as he thinks he is or was. Perhaps Daisy-May has a softer side to her, even if she keeps her guard up most of the time. These suggestions aren’t definitive, though, so for much of the book we find ourselves in a kind of limbo, trying and failing to pin the characters down. It’s unsettling but it certainly makes you want to read on.

The level of invention displayed across this novel is something to behold. Wherever and whatever ‘the Pit’ is, it’s a tremendous idea which comes off the page with fantastical grimness. The various pathways between the Pit and ‘the real world’ are portrayed with tremendous creativity, suggesting just how dramatic the transition between one and the other is for Joe and Daisy-May. The contrast between the brutality of the drugs gangs of rural Britain and the otherworldly violence of some of the supernatural oddities that Joe and Daisy-May encounter is extraordinary to see. Yet in one sense the fantastical beasts come out of it much better than the humans, since their cruelty is natural rather than a deliberate choice.

Even while Simcox is painting the picture of a vivid fantasy world on the outside, he still manages to find the time to comment on some of the grimmest aspects of contemporary British society. The use and abuse of naïve young people by the drugs gangs is a repeated theme, with the end result for so many of their victims being all too tragically predictable, particularly if the gang leaders have abandoned any semblance of humanity in pursuit of profit and power.

I really don’t want to put you off, though. These social observations are wrapped up in a tremendously exciting supernatural crime thriller, which I enjoyed from the first chapter to the last. Even better, my understanding is that Simcox has already written the sequel. I’m dying to find out what Joe and Daisy-May get up to next.

Patrick Mahon

February 2022

(pub: Gollancz, 2021. 404 page enlarged paperback. Price: £13.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-1-473-23436-9)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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