Monday, July 10, 2017

Dying off-stage

Ten Dead Comedians

Fred Van Lente


Publisher:  Quirk Books 

Pub. Date: July 11, 2017

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars


 The title of Ten Dead Comedians is going to sound very familiar to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of murder mysteries. The best selling mystery of all times is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None which was also titled Ten Little Indians and in its first printing was given the title Ten Little *insert N word*. Fortunately saner heads won out in later years. Fred Van Lent's very funny take-off on the Christie novel can be called a pastiche or even a tribute to the classic book but, like all good tributes, it adds something of its own and makes its own statement.

Fred Van Lente is primarily known as a writer of comic books and graphic novels. This is his first novel and I guess it is a compliment that it didn't make me think of graphic novels at all. It made me think of someone who has a first hand knowledge of the business of stand-up comedy and the psychological make-up of anyone who wishes to go into that brutal business. I am not sure whether he has that experience but he made me feels like he did. The premise of Ten Dead Comedians, as it is in the Agatha Christie book, involves ten people who are invited to a secluded island for somewhat vague reasons. One by one, they end up being murdered. Since it is established that no one else is on the island, the murderer has to be one of the ten. And we are off to the races.

All of Van Lente's unsuspecting victims are comedians. In fact, they are sort of a sampling of comic stereotypes. Some of them are thin disguises of well known comics such as Joan Rivers and Larry the Cable Guy. A few seem to be a combination of individuals. For instance, prop comic Oliver Rees aka Orange Baby Man appears to be a mixture of Carrot Top and Gallagher. Others seem to be more of a capsule of a particular type of comic style than any one person. The use of comic archtypes works well in this story. They shape the characters and their issues. as they play against the mysterious personage of Dustin Walker, a legend who all ten comics have a connection to and the one who invites them to his island. Walker is sort of the McGuffin in the novel. He explains via videotape why they are all there and then kills himself. Guessing the connections to Walker and how he is pulling off this mass extinction of funny people is half the fun.

Of course a book like this needs to be funny. But not so funny or outlandish that we lose the structure of the mystery. Intermittent slices of each comic's routines helps us along as we follow this who-will-do-it and who-will-croak-it. All in all it is a clever take-off on a very weird profession. Van Lente offers lots of droll and witty one liners as each comic engage each other in a competition of words and wits. I can't say any one character is very sympathetic but since we are dealing with archtypes rather than rounded characterizations, it tends to work.

When we do get to the ending, we get a satisfactory if far fetched solution. It is actually no more unrealistic than many of the convoluted endings we expect from the masters like Christie. This ends up as a satire of a particular type of mystery as well as being a parody of comics. The author takes care of the loose ends adequately and we are left with a smile on our face. I'm not sure how much more a reader of a book titled Ten Dead Comedians should expect. If you love Christie styled mysteries you will enjoy the spin.. If you love stand up comedy you will enjoy the in-jokes and the inside look at comic psyches. And if you just enjoy funny novels, you should definitely give this a try.

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