Dead End Job, by Justin Alcala [Review]

                There are very few truly original ideas, but Justin Alcala has found one. His new “noir supernatural thriller” dips us in the river Styx and puts us inside the head of Buck, a former military sniper, recent professional assassin, and now intern to The Grim Reaper. After being shot in the head during an assignment, Buck is saved from a trip to Hades by Death himself. Death needs a vacation, and in order to keep the orderly flow of souls leaving the mortal coil running smoothly, he needs somebody to fill in for him while he’s away. More importantly, he needs somebody to help him track down and vanquish the recalcitrant souls who refuse to go quietly into that good night – the undead. These are the pesky problems that The Grim Reaper has to deal with, and he could use some help. Buck, as a professional hitman, fits the bill for this Dead End Job.

                The concept is clever, and the writing style is consistent with the smart-ass persona the author gives Buck. If you liked Dead Pool, you’ll appreciate the sarcastic, self-deprecating humor the author gives Buck. Written mostly from Buck’s perspective, it’s fun to be inside his head as he realizes that he’s not dead, and can’t be killed as long as he’s in the employ of Death. His adventures through the world are punctuated by small details – like he still needs to eat food, and he has no money or source of income. He sets out on his first assignment, to eliminate a particularly nasty fellow called Zombie Pete. That adventure convinces Death that Buck is, indeed, a good candidate for the intern job, and allows Death to take his holiday, leaving Buck in possession of the Scythe of extinction (known as Old Lilith) and a new assignment to take out a petulant vampire.

                The banter between Buck, Death, and Death’s IT guy, Jumbo, is always entertaining and light-hearted. Mr. Alcala has a brilliant sense of humor that guides a reader through the story. Despite a high content of violence (mostly directed at characters who are already undead and mostly out to kill Buck), the humor and tone of the story makes the violence palatable and not at all disturbing. (Think about all the violence in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies – lots of blood, but somehow still light-hearted and funny rather than unpleasant.)

                The story does slow down after the Zombie Pete sequence, as Buck finds an orphaned werewolf child named Luna and he has to unravel the political intrigue of the competing factions within the world of the undead who are fighting each other. The characters are all interesting and entertaining as they try to kill each other and Buck, despite all of them being already partly dead already. This center portion of the story is not as fast-paced as the start, but it picks up again at the finish. Buck’s attachment to Luna seems out of character a bit, but is believable within the context of everything else Buck is going through. He did just die, after all. The best parts of the book, though, are when Death and Buck are on screen together. In the end, the author leaves open the prospect for future installments of Death’s Intern. I would certainly sign up to watch the next episode.

                Dead End Job is an entertaining, fun-filled romp through the netherworld of the undead on Earth with a cheeky protagonist, a clever premise, and well-executed story and dialogue.

                I read a pre-publication edition of this book, which had some proofreading issues that, hopefully, will be corrected before final publication. The book is currently available for pre-order on amazon.com, with a publication date of October 5, 2021.


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