Born in the Bronx, Stefan Petrucha spent his formative years moving between the big city and the suburbs, both of which made him prefer escapism. A fan of comic books, science fiction and horror since learning to read, in high school and college he added a love for all sorts of literary work, eventually learning that the very best fiction always brings you back to reality, so, really, there’s no way out. He’s since written 20 novels and scores of comics, Ripper from Philomel Books and Dead Mann Running from Ace/Roc, the latest. Much more on him can be had at www.petrucha.com.

Zombie Noir – The Path of “Dead Mann Running”

Thanks to SF Signal for inviting me to gab about the Sept. 4 release of Dead Mann Running, my second Hessius Mann novel, from Ace/Roc Books. I’ve grown fond, of late, of reminding everyone that Publishers Weekly called it a “must-read for Urban Fantasy fans.” In fact, I often wake in a cold sweat, screaming those very words: Must-read! Must-read!

My hubris, however, extends beyond my nightmares. When conscious, I think the saga of zombie-detective Hess will appeal not only to UF fans, but to followers of everything else I like, from Breaking Bad to Dexter. To that end, I’m terribly pleased to announce that a Dead Mann television series is currently being developed by some great folk whose names I can’t mention yet.

So how do you mix sputtering neon signs and graveyard gore?

Noir and Zombies always seemed natural partners to me (or, if you like obvious jokes, unnatural partners.) Noir means dark (well, technically, black, en français). Noir is ratty, grim, cynical. The world and characters it depicts are more often than not, dead inside, their dreams shattered or forsaken. They go through the motions of life in the best idle-zombie way. Even the noblest noir figures aren’t heroes so much as hapless, forced, by fate or circumstance, to take a stand.

Take Sam Spade, who says in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Difficult words coming from the man who slept with his partner’s wife.

Point being, in noir, what good exists doesn’t come down to from on high, it’s dragged into being by gritty, fallible hands. Watching it play out is akin to watching sausages being made.

I try to be smart about my sources, so many classic echoes appear in Dead Mann – Hess’s wife was cheating on him before she was murdered. The jealous, hot-tempered Hess is blamed for the murder and executed. When DNA evidence exonerates him, a he’s brought back. Only, mankind being what it is, he’s brought back badly – not unlike those sausages. Better misery through chemistry, if you will.

So, on the one hand we have noir’s cynical soulless, in their own way, walking dead, and then there’s real thing – zombies, once plantation slaves, now a popular metaphor for a virulent plague, or perhaps mankind as a virulent plague.

As a result, Hess isn’t simply fallible, he’s rotting – fighting a body that no longer quite works and a memory that doesn’t. He doesn’t stand up to evil for goodness’ sake; he’s just desperate to keep himself busy, because if he doesn’t, if he loses all sense of purpose, he’ll go feral. And then, it’s Romero time. In Mann’s world, if a zombie grows too despondent, they become savage.

While the first book gives the shambling detective a crack at the man who killed his wife, Running ups the ante, peeling back the skin on both the characters and the world.

While writing it, I look a long hard look at another Hammett novel, The Glass Key. Its drop-dead gorgeous prose is so direct, so simple, so pared down, it’s practically invisible, as in: “He took the lighter out and looked at it. A cunning gleam came into his one open eye as he looked at the lighter. The gleam was not sane.”

I’m not saying I matched Hammett, but as a result of trying, Dead Mann Running moves along a rattling, kick-ass pace though a hard-boiled mystery, zombie assaults, sadistic humans, torture, and an ending I think readers will find genuinely surprising. But don’t take my word for it – have a look at this free PDF excerpt.

While there’ve been a few other undead detectives, notably Matt Richter, Harry Dresden and Angel, while I hardly think any of them lacking, all exist in worlds rife with other magical beings, other forms, no matter how twisted, of life.

The only difference between the world of Sam Spade and Hess is that very flawed method of resurrection. As Hess describes it at the beginning of the book, “Rebirth sounds great, doesn’t it? Sounds like hope, possibility, spring. Nope. It’s more like that poet T.S. Eliot said, “April is the cruelest month.”

In terms of atmosphere, the closest comparison I can think of is also what I consider the most noirish horror film – Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead.

Which brings me back, full circle, and again, I wake screaming, “Must read!”

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