In most fiction, the death of the protagonist would be the end of the story, but in Jo Perry’s Charlie & Rose series (previously ‘Dead is Better’ & ‘Dead is Best’) it’s the starting point for a series of books which use our dead and at times impotent everyman and his sole companion – a deeply affecting red setter, the victim (in life) or torture and starvation, and who now acts as a sounding board and a moral compass for Charlie who still, at times, faces situations where there are no good solutions and all is shades of grey.
And in this respect, this particular book excels: Where most people writing crime fiction with a ghost and a dog would likely slide towards the cosy, Perry does almost exactly the opposite. Charlie, in each successive book, is becoming both more self-aware, and more aware of the inequities and evils of the world. And yet he’s dead, can communicate only with Rose and – briefly – with any other whose passing over he witnesses, and is forced, therefore, to remain, as in life, and despite the fact that he now aches to actually act, as a bystander, watching the unfolding events and trying, in some way, to impact them.
Which could make for very dull reading in lesser hands. But Perry’s are not lesser hands. Having written both for TV and Poetry, what we have here is a book which feels like a meditation on mortality, on – as two characters are named – Hope and Grace, and on Love. In fact the first two mysteries here – why does an idealistic lawyer arrange her own execution by the LAPD and who is now out to silence her artist sister – become, whilst entertaining and challenging, secondary to the main mystery within the book: Can Love survive Death?
And the Television writing results in a book which has echoes of David Simons’ ‘The Wire,’ if it was set in LA and looked at undocumented immigrants, sweatshop workers, drug couriers, and the chain that goes up to Angelean businessmen with million dollar mansions, kids who get tens of thousands of dollars spent on birthday parties, and wives who remain – one senses, deliberately – ignorant of the source of the family wealth.
It’s this – this cinematic view of the landscape – that transports this and the other Charlie & Rose books above the norm and makes them – for me – genuinely emotional. One scene in particular, when the spirits of the dead – unseen by the living – descend on Father Serra Park on the Dia de Los Muertos – was so affecting that it had me in tears.
This isn’t for everyone. And that’s fine: who wants a world where there’s only one sort of book? But it is definitely for anyone who wants a book that moves you, asks you to consider difficult questions and is unafraid to admit that in life – as in death – sometimes things aren’t neat, the ends aren’t all nicely tied up; but the essence – the spirit of good people trying to do good – never dies.