Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NEW STUFF: Ten Dead Comedians - Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead Comedians
by Fred Van Lente
Quirk Publications
Hardcover ISBN: 9781594749742
e-Book ISBN: 9781594749759
288 pages
Release Date: July 11, 2017

The blurb on the back cover of Ten Dead Comedians tells it all. One deserted island, two nights of terror, three secret rooms... (see photo below) Actually one of those is a red herring, but it’s number five you ought to pay attention to. Yes, there really are five critical clues. In fact I think there are more than that. And yes those five clues can lead you to the solution of the mystery. This is not only an often laugh out loud funny satire about Hollywood self-involvement and unmanageable egos, or a dead on evisceration of the world of stand-up and improv comedy, it’s also one of the best plotted, fairly clued modern mysteries I’ve read this year. It takes a lot to impress me and Fred Van Lente did it.

The sometimes clunky opening chapter takes some concentration. It’s that kind of necessary evil in any send-up of the And Then There Were None style mystery novel overloaded with exposition and character introductions. Yes, as the back cover might have sounded all too familiar to a seasoned mystery reader, this is another clone of And Then There Were None. No, not a clone. An evil twin. A cackling, jibing, nasty spirited evil twin. And I mean all of that in a good way.

As the title clearly spells out for us instead of murderers we have jokesters and comics as the intended victims. Once the introductions are out of the way and we head to the thoroughly booby-trapped island the book settles in for a macabre and creepy weekend of horror and laughs. It becomes a real page turner, the characters are fleshed out more, the plot becomes ever more intriguing and the murder methods become ever more baroque. It’s a gruesome story, my friends. At times it seems that Van Lente may have decided to write a mash-up of Christie with the Saw franchise. Imagine such a monster genre-blender with laughs! Difficult I know, but dang it all it works. Just as Christie’s book becomes increasingly serious fueled by fear and paranoia so does Ten Dead Comedians. The book can be downright somber when it needs to be. Yet another facet that impressed me.

Each of the ten chapters is divided into ten sections and separated by ten transcripts. As the book progresses those transcripts, eight of which are actual stand-up routines, display Van Lente’s versatility as a comic writer perfectly capturing a different tone and style for each of his uniquely different comedians. My favorite and the funniest of those sections is Janet Kahn’s relentless and merciless tearing down of a heckler who dared to interrupt her set. The diatribe was recorded on a YouTube video and we read the transcript of that video. The comic highlight of the novel those three pages alone are well worth the cover charge.

In addition to the mystery of who is knocking off all the comedians and why the reader may find himself engaged in a match of wits with the writer in trying to pair up the fictional comics with their real world inspirations. The most obvious to me is Van Lente’s scurrilous parody of the Blue Man Group empire in the person of Oliver Rees and his absurdly infantile Orange Baby Man act which has become an international phenomenon. He’s about to open yet another Orange Baby Man theater at a Sandals resort in the US Virgin islands as the story opens. There is a sardonic female insult comic who is clearly an amalgam of Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin and maybe a few others. The rest are a mix of men and women representing all races and every type you can think of from smug late night talk show host to the tirelessly touring washed up comic seeking solace from the bottle and longing for a clean motel room that isn’t near a loud and busy highway or airport. From the quasi feminist woman comic who enjoys talking about her pet dog more than anything to a subversive podcaster who seems to hate everything about stand up and tries (unsuccessfully) to be funny in pointing out their hypocrisies. Van Lente has some original touches to this motley group like the redneck comic who in reality is an ultra snob with a refined taste in modern art, gourmet food, expensive wine and a multisyllabic vocabulary. In fact, the absolute antithesis of his onstage persona, Billy the Contractor. The audience during his act, a self-deprecating celebration of everything working class and mundane, are unaware of their being cruelly mocked and belittled.

The real draw here and the most pleasant surprise of all is that the book is a tightly plotted, well constructed, genuine traditional murder mystery. The average reader may catch on early to the scheme and motivation of the unseen killer as will the veteran whodunit reader, but I guarantee that even the most polished of fans will miss some of Van Lente’s subtle clues that are revealed by an unexpected detective in the triple twist filled final pages. One of the best jokes cannot be revealed here either because it gives away something about that character and how that person acquired such finely honed detective skills. Apart from Janet’s lacerating tongue lashing of her crass heckler it was the one joke that cracked me up the most.

Be warned, however, that Ten Dead Comedians is just like the title of Steve Martin’s third 1970s album Comedy Is Not Pretty! This is a very American, very vulgar, four letter word (and then some) littered story. Those easily offended or put off by Technicolor swearing and cursing might just as well keep on strolling past this title to something tamer and less colorful. That’s not a joke on the rear cover where it brags of "Seven words you can’t say on TV!", that’s Van Lente’s true homage to one of his many comedy heroes – George Carlin – listed on his Acknowledgments page. And yes, each of those seven words appear in the text. Some of them several times.

If your tastes in humor lean toward the tasteless, then step right in. The book is not a laugh riot on every page, but there are moments of comedy gold here. It's the bloody well done murder mystery you're after anyway. Mystery aficionados will eat up the plot looking for the similarities to Christie and others of this ilk as well as thoroughly enjoying having the rug pulled out from under them in the final pages. You’ll get some laughs, some chuckles and some well-earned gasps. Just like comics’ slang for doing well in a set you might say that Fred Van Lente really killed with his debut mystery. Slaughtered them even.


  1. Well, this sounds marvellous...many thanks, John -- clearly it's something special for you to be reviewing a book the rest of us actually have a chance of tracking down ;-)

    1. I just hope I haven't oversold this. The writer comes from the world of comics and graphic novels and I was skeptical that he'd be able to pull off a grand scale parody of Christie's classic. The gruesome violence was a given, but the clever plot was the icing on the cake.

  2. I read about Ten Dead Comedians a few weeks ago and thought how great it would be if the book was something of a cross between Tough Crowd with Colin Quin (with all the O&A comedians) and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, but dismissed it as wishful thinking. After all, it's a modern crime novel by an unknown author and they always have to be approached with a good deal of skepticism by fanatical classicists like myself.

    But your review fills me with hope, John! The book has been added to my wish list.

    1. Many of the online reviews I later read are just synopses of the story. Since it's an And Then There Were None homage I didn't think it necessary to talk about that at all. The characters are colorful and three or four are brilliant send-ups so I focused on them. Few of those reviews delved into the plot mechanics. And Van Lente is really rather good in that area. That's no lie.

      I hope you get a chance to read this one and that it lives up to my rave. I'm sure you and JJ will catch on to the tricks and gimmicks Van Lente uses, but you may not get all of them. I thought I had it solved, then I changed my mind to a convoluted solution after one key scene that diverts the story, then I changed my mind again. Finally, when the denouement comes I realized I was right from the get-go but not 100% right. There was a lot I didn't catch onto. If nothing else, it's puts the fun back into reading a mystery novel.

  3. Thankfully, one book on your blog that is there in a library. Would borrow it soon.

    1. Really? In India? That's a progressive library...I guess. Be prepared for tastelessness and gore.