Written by Patrick O’Duffy — There are all kinds of self-published crime books appearing. As we are frequently reminded, this means there’s a lot to sift through! However, written by an Australian editor of educational books, The Obituarist is a quirky-but-clever gem of a release.
Kendall Barber has a peculiar profession, necessitated by our increasing use of social media to play out every minor event of our lives in front of followers or friends. Except Barber specialises in handling one rather particular event – death. For a modest fee he hacks into Facebook and Twitter accounts, erases embarrassing subscriptions to porn sites, and generally sanitises the web life of dead people when their grieving relatives do not have the technical ability, or are too upset, to do it themselves. He calls himself a social media undertaker.
He lives in the intriguingly named Port Virtue, but that saintly commodity is in very short supply as Barber is visited by a murderous biker called Neckbeard, the darkly alluring Tonya Clemmens, and the rather scabrous and crumpled Detective Grayson. Barber is no hero, but he is smart, and as he tangles with the drug-addled underworld fixer D-Block, and his menacing Samoan minder George, he needs all his wits to stay alive. Apart from his ability to cleanse the online identities of the departed, the slippery Mr Barber has another very marketable skill – he’s a top quality forger and document fixer. D-Block has a big job on for some high flying low-life clients, and Barber’s skills with digital images and his hidden stock of exactly the same kind of paper used by government departments stand to make D-Block some serious cash.
Tonya has asked Barber to ‘do a job’ on her missing brother Anthony. Despite his body never having been found, the family assumes Anthony is dead, and want to make sure that he has left behind no embarrassing traces in his cyber life. When Barber makes a gruesome discovery in a garage laboratory, he thinks he has found the answer to both Anthony’s disappearance, and the reason why the biker gang wants him dead and out of the way. Barber has a memorably personal encounter with Tonya and several brushes with death before he is able to turn the tables on everyone and escape with his sanity and working parts more or less intact.
I loved this book. It is, admittedly, a fairly brief volume, but there is a clever balance between action and reflection. Patrick O’Duffy has dedicated it to Raymond Chandler, but is wise enough to add that, “He would probably hate it.” Maybe so, but there are more than a few moments in The Obituarist that reminded me of The Master’s way with a memorable description. Barber goes into a club which is “…a loose nexus of sticky carpet, ripped chairs and facial tattoos.” There is a kind of comic book feel to much of the narrative, and the author is a big comics fan, but in the end we learn that there has been a much darker and more personal undercurrent to the action. There is an astonishing surprise before everything is wrapped up, and I take off my proverbial hat to O’Duffy for risking this and pulling it off. To be fair, on flipping back through the early pages, he does leave a few subtle clues, but my only caveat is an enigmatic one. “I think I might have noticed!”
CFL Rating: 4 Stars