Gary McMahon’s Dead Bad Things is the second of his Thomas Usher novels (I reviewed the first, Pretty Little Dead Things, here). Thomas Usher is a man who can see the dead, following an accident in which his family died. As such, he is known to the Leeds police force for his ability to help them, although Usher views his power as a curse rather than a blessing.
If the first novel welded McMahon’s distinctly nihilistic and downbeat style of horror to the police procedural genre, this second seems to be influenced more by things like David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, where the coppers have secret pasts and hidden loyalties of their own. Whilst Dead Bad Things does open with the discovery of a gruesome child murder by PC Sarah Doherty and her colleague Benson, the question of the identity of the killer is not really what drives the plot forward (although don’t worry, it is revealed). The bulk of the novel is about Doherty’s relationship with her dead father, a famous and well-liked policeman who in the privacy of his home used to rape his wife and cut his daughter with a razor blade. Sarah, who still lives in the family house, begins to investigate her father’s life and uncovers some dark secrets. And at the same time, she starts to see a strange figure in robes and a white cowl, haunting her.
Thomas Usher himself features less in this book than the first, although he is pivotal to how it progresses. He starts the narrative living in a very haunted house in London, trying to escape his past... but a man who sees ghosts should know more than anyone how impossible that is. He soon begins to hear voices and see strange visions calling him back to the North. As well as Doherty and Usher, there are two other viewpoints the action is conveyed from: one a character returning from Pretty Little Dead Things, and one from the viewpoint of…. well, something completely unexpected is all I’ll say here.
These multiple viewpoints and less conventional plot structure make the mechanics of Dead Bad Things occasionally seem a bit too exposed (in particular it seems to take an age to get Usher properly connected to the main plot) but it really doesn’t matter when a writer has such total command of suspense and atmosphere as McMahon displays. To call this book ‘dark’ would imply there’s some chance that your eyes might adjust to the lack of light here, but forget it: McMahon’s world is bleak and you’ll feel just as brutalised leaving it as you do coming in. But it’s a darkness that isn’t gratuitous (although there are some bravura ‘bad deaths’); it comes from looking at the world straight. And its uncompromising nature makes it as exhilarating rather than exhausting. McMahon’s prose and characterisation never falter and for all its heaviness Dead Bad Things is very readable, a genuine page-turner as it’s plot moves forward and its different strands start to connect.
The book ends with the faint suggestion of future hope for some of the characters; which is good for Thomas Usher but maybe bad news for those of us wanting a third book in this fantastic series.