Dragonfall Press (2012)
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
What the Dead Said is a novel based around a good, original idea, which somehow never comes to full fruition. Although the novel is not bad, it lacks a single realistic, credible character for the reader to engage with, and the plot is vague and unfocused. The result is a novel that isn’t terrible, but never really catches your interest either.
In Sydney in 2021, the barriers between the worlds have become porous. Suddenly ghosts are everywhere, and worse, everyone can see them. Most ghosts aren’t very nice – some are positively unstable. So most people find it unsettling to spend each day navigating a world now populated with ghosts. In addition, the ghosts like to interfere with the human world. They play nasty pranks (such as frightening some people to death), and although they’re happy to give testimony about such matters as their own murder, you can’t be sure they’re telling the truth. Vampires have come out of the shadows and act as a sort of intermediary between ghosts and humans, but that’s only a minor comfort as most humans don’t like vampires much either.
Sckel is a freak in this world, and he doesn’t know if he’s privileged or handicapped. He can’t see ghosts. Can’t even sense their presence. He’s given up his previous career as a result, and become a detective with a special unit in the police force which deals with “Apparitions” – in essence, crimes which may involve ghosts or other supernatural activity. Sckel is very disconnected from the world; he seems to have no real skills for his work and no interest in it either. Since he also doesn’t seem interested in other people, you have to wonder why he bothers to get out of bed in the morning.
But Sckel looks into a case which introduces him to an eccentric inventor, a robot which is intelligent and aware, and a few generally odd characters. He soon finds he’s entangled in more than a murder case; people want to use him to change the world (again).
The characters were a significant problem for me. Each of them is flat, with little to differentiate them or make them come alive. The central character, and narrator, Sckel, was a particular problem. For the novel to work, we have to care about Sckel and want to know what happens to him. The difficulty is that he never seems credible. Sckel is the only person who can’t see ghosts in the new world. Although we are told that this is a big deal, it’s not all that clear why. Apart from the fact other people don’t like looking at ghosts, it’s not clear why it’s either an advantage or disadvantage not to see them. We’re told that he can’t be influenced by them; but few of the other characters seem influenced either. We’re told he had to give up his previous career as a teacher because he couldn’t see ghosts and the kids would have had an advantage over him. This was baffling; there really seemed no credible reason why he wouldn’t have been able to continue as a teacher. And to then be made a detective in a specialized area of the police force dealing with ghosts, apparently with no training or relevant experience, and when his “disability” doesn’t seem to lend him any real advantage?
I’m sure this could have been made to work. Unfortunately Daniels does not bother to develop the idea of the one man who can’t see ghosts – he just tells us that it’s a huge advantage for Sckel in some ways. It would have been good to see this in action, and to get a sense of the contrast between his life and that of his colleagues. The failure to do this is a huge blow to the novel’s chances of success.
If you don’t have any characters that are credible or engaging, it’s particularly important to instead have a plot which draws the reader in and keeps them reading. Again, Daniels seems to have started with a reasonably good idea, but then failed to work it out well enough to be effective. The initial case that introduces us to Sckel just sort of tails off and is handed off to another area as a problem that doesn’t involve ghosts after all. Characters appear briefly as though they’re going to start subplots, and then just fade off again. The main plot (of Sckel becoming mixed up in a scheme to either close or open further the gates between the living and the dead) just kind of wanders around vaguely and never becomes compelling, convincing, or even all that interesting.
And yet, with a stronger eye to the investigative or mystery elements of the plot, this could have been a strong strand to keep the reader interested, and perhaps to reveal more about the characters. Instead we’re treated to a number of pointless vignettes that don’t advance the plot or the characterization and instead heighten the sense of a lack of focus.
What the Dead Said isn’t a dreadful book. The writing style is clear and it’s an easy enough read. There are some good ideas in here which could have been really interesting if they were better developed. Daniels has set the novel in Sydney 2021, and he provides a setting which is recognisably Sydney, albeit a little changed by time and events.
This isn’t a novel which I can truly recommend. The characterisation was awful, and the plot simply wasn’t strong enough to be really interesting or successful. However, it wasn’t a hard read, and some readers might enjoy the ideas even if they haven’t been well executed. Daniels has potential, although s/he probably needs more experience and perhaps a tougher editor to highlight weak spots. If What the Dead Said falls into your hands it might be worth reading, but don’t search it out.