Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Christopher Moore is one of those uniquely inventive authors whose books can be instantly recognized and are impossible to replicate. In A Dirty Job, one of his more famous works, he tells us the story of Charlie Asher, owner of a second-hand clothing store, whose girlfriend passed away during childbirth, leaving him to care for little Sophie. In addition, he has accidentally stumbled into a world hidden within his own, becoming not exactly Death, but something quite close to it.
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Christopher Moore Raises an Unwitting Reaper
In one way or another, every culture has tried to define and deal with the concept of death in its own way, and a common way of perceiving it is to attribute the act to a single entity responsible for it all. Many are those who have imagined themselves or others in such a role, and in A Dirty Job, the first novel in the Grim Reaper Series, Christopher Moore puts his own spin on the subject, introducing us to Charlie Asher, the unfortunate owner of a second-hand clothing store.
More importantly, Charlie’s beloved wife Rachel has just recently passed away while giving birth to their daughter Sophie, leaving him all alone in a life he has absolutely no idea how to live. However, something even more disturbing happened to him while he was witnessing his wife’s passing: he saw a seven-foot tall black man in a lime-green suit standing over her, a man nobody else could see.
After strange occurrences besiege Charlie at an increasingly alarming rate, he finally makes a discovery which might just breathe some new life into him: he is sort of a Grim Reaper. More precisely, he is a “death merchant”, whose task is to shepherd the souls of people bound to objects (soul vessels) towards new owners, sorely lacking a soul themselves.
Naturally, such a responsibility doesn’t come without consequence. In his day planner names and numbers appear, giving him a time limit to collect their soul vessels. Should he fail, the forces of darkness will surely rise and destroy all the things and people he loves. Little does he know, these forces are actually much closer than he anticipated, and they’re only getting stronger.
In the sewers beneath San Francisco are three harpy-like creatures, yearning for errant souls to grow in strength and reclaim the world above. With Charlie being generally bad at most things he does, it seems to be only a matter of time before Charlie fails at his job as Death Merchant, especially with all the distractions he has going on in his life, the principal one being Sophie who seems to have made friends with hell hounds and is capable of killing people with the word kitty.
Death Turned into Comedy in A Dirty Job
More often than not, the subject of death tends to be morose for obvious reasons, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only way for us to approach it. Making fun of the concept to alleviate the existential dread it causes in us all isn’t something new, but it’s something Christopher Moore takes to heart in A Dirty Job, and in my mind he accomplishes it quite well.
Perhaps modern forms of entertainment have desensitized me to the concept to some extent already, but even though this novel starts with Rachel’s tragic demise, the comedic overtones are already present to turn the tragedy into a black comedy. As you might imagine, many deaths occur throughout the course of the novel, but none of them feel especially weighty, largely because the idea itself has been turned into something banal.
As we follow Charlie Asher’s increasingly deep dive into the world of death merchants, we start to mirror his sarcastic attitude towards his lot in life. Important discoveries are inevitably followed by genuinely-funny, sometimes observant quips, and life-altering problems are often times left to spiral out of control on their own, though not for a lack of trying.
One of my favourite aspects of the book was the way in which Christopher Moore depicted the so-called “Sewer Harpies”, as Charlie personally refers to them. While they are meant to be the harbingers of all that is evil and threatening the destruction of the world, their behaviour is largely petty and childish, though somehow their intimidating aura remains.
In the hands of many other writers these characters would have likely turned out more annoying than anything else, but in Moore‘s hands, they are villains in equal parts grandiose and hilarious. As a matter of fact, I think something of the sort can be said of most of the characters found in A Dirty Job, and in my opinion, they’re the heart and soul of this work.
San Francisco Weirdos
If I had to pick a single aspect of this novel which turns it from an average work into something truly remarkable, it would be the large cast of eccentric characters, and all the hilarious ways in which they interact with each other. No two people are alike in this story, each one being fleshed out to the necessary degree, sometimes through short descriptive paragraphs, and other times, through their actions. From a directionless goth girl-turned-chef to a former cop with a penchant for suspecting others of being serial killers, we really do get to meet all kinds of people.
I won’t say all the characters are complex. As a matter of fact, I would say it’s far from it. Many of the people here are relatively simple folk, and all are defined by some specific quirk they have, leading us to becoming surrounded by some rather eccentric folk. Despite this, the majority of them actually feel like real people you know or could one day meet… at least, in San Francisco.
While I’ve never been there, I think Christopher Moore succeeds in capturing the atmosphere which, I believe, he knows better than I do. Without taking us on long excursions anywhere, he paints a portrait of the city using a few locales, but most of all, the characters. The ways in which the diverse elements of this society interact with each other not only serve as entertainment, but also as a window into the San Franciscan soul. It’s definitely a lot more grounded than some of his other novels, such as Shakespeare for Squirrels, for instance.
With this being said, don’t make the mistake of thinking the characters are just there for a bit of world-building and entertainment. There are a few powerful moments interspersed throughout A Dirty Job where Moore puts the comedy on hold for a few minutes, exploring some of life’s more difficult themes, largely revolving around the modern human’s inherent lack of purpose in life, and, you guessed it, the pain which comes with death.
As a matter, regardless of whether a character was good or evil in the story, I found myself attached to most of them and hoping they would live through the increasingly deadly vortex surrounding Charlie Asher. Speaking of him, I think he was the perfect protagonist for this type of story: deeply-flawed, bumbling, frustrated, sarcastic, but willing to work for the light at the end of the tunnel. He was able to annoy, bemuse and amuse me, to make me feel a wide spectrum of emotions, and had some interesting thoughts to share along the way. I can ask for little more from a main character.
|405||HarperCollins||March 27 2007||978-0060590284|
The Final Verdict
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore is a magnificent mixture of black humour and paranormal horror, taking us on an inventive and laugh-out-loud funny romp through the surprisingly strict underworld of eternal darkness, sewer harpies and death merchants, as seen through the eyes of a single, desperate father in San Francisco.
If you’ve enjoyed Moore‘s other works, or are in the mood for a truly original comedy which I promise will defy your expectations, then this is definitely the right book for you.
Christopher Moore is an American writer who primarily specializes in comedic fantasy novels. He has written numerous series such as The Pine Cove Books (Practical Demonkeeping; The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove), Vampires in San Francisco (Bloodsucking Fiends; You Suck) and the Death Merchant Chronicles (A Dirty Job; Secondhand Souls).
Among his awards are the 2005 Quill Award for Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, the 2006 Quill Award for General Fiction, and the 2010 Goodreads Choice Awards Best Humour.