November 28, 2009


by Doug Dorst
448 pages, Riverhead Trade; Reprint edition

Review by Maria Bustillos

Alive in Necropolis has the compulsive page-turning wallop of Harlan Coben or Robert Harris, and the nostalgic pleasures of a fine San Francisco history; it's got ghosts, and all sorts of very cool and ingeniously imagined supernatural wrinkles to do with them, like ghost-killing, and even ghost-policing. It has villains and heroes, sordid drug dens and doomed love affairs, booze-soaked fiascos and hair's-breadth escapes. And it's sad, and touching, and very, very funny. The dialogue in particular is superfine. I imagine that Dorst's wise-cracking cops will make an absolutely rawkin' movie. (I had already cast Adrien Grenier as Mike Mercer, our hero, before I reached the end.)

Mercer is a cop with issues, working in the necropolis of Colma, California--which is a real place, a tiny town near San Francisco made up largely of cemeteries. In Doug Dorst's Colma, however, there is justice to be done among the dead as well as the living. The novel threads between the future and the past, love and loneliness, the crimes of ghosts and of living men and women. Mike Mercer's story is told against this beautifully-wrought, pleasurably strange and complex background, and Dorst elevates him onto that rare, high plane of the novelist's art where we come as we read to believe, despite his fantastic situation, that Mercer is a real person, someone we know; someone we'd like to scold, to argue with, to embrace and comfort.

The novel’s idiosyncrasies never get in the way of the storytelling. There’s a series of police reports, painstakingly reproduced as old-fashioned forms typed out in Courier, that provide both comic relief and asthma-inducing suspense without ever seeming gimmicky or out of place because the story is all, and the reader races along the plot’s resilient thread quite effortlessly all the way to its thrilling end.
Most of all, Dorst grants his all weird cast of characters--the washed-up and wasted, the 19th-c. criminals, the stoners and thieves and homeless guys lost on the streets--a rare compassion. His kindness and keen perception flow over all equally, like a benediction. That's what really makes the book such an enjoyable read: the author is a boon companion, witty but never self-regarding, clever without the slightest pretension. The NYT called this book "big-hearted" and I can't do better than agree with them, except to add that it is also one of those rare policiers that succeeds in communicating a deeper purpose.

To illustrate this point: one of the main messages of Alive in Necropolis is that a man should "die like an aviator," to wit, having flown; having taken the risk of flying, of having lived. Dorst weaves this simple, valuable message quite unabashedly, playfully even, through multiple layers of the story. I just loved that, that such an exciting, thriller-paced ghost story should also be so innocently serious and just good, you know--it really sent me. Highly, highly recommended.


  1. Maria, as the only author on here that I trust, I am going to take you on your word and pick up Alive in Necropolis.

    However... he said with an evil glower...
    if you steer me wrong, I will be forced to split open your skull and gobble your brains up like a thanksgiving turkey.

    Just sayin'.

  2. Pretty small meal, there, mon ami. How're you keeping?