I always feel slightly unqualified writing about a book where I haven’t read the first in the series. For that reason, it hasn’t happened too often, but I didn’t want to pass off reviewing Archer Coe and The Way to Dusty Death so in recognition of my unfamiliarity with Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, I’ve decided not to give a star rating. I didn’t feel at a disadvantage starting the book but while I think I might have had a few notes about the ending regardless, not knowing Archer’s full story means I can’t be certain whether I’m missing something.
Archer Coe is a hypnotist who almost never appears out of costume. The first page we see him sleeping with his eye mask on. I don’t know whether this is a quirk or if there’s a reason he doesn’t change but like comic strips, where characters wear the same outfit every week, it cements Archer Coe as a hypnotist who doesn’t turn off. He lives above the theater where he performs, and the title page is an exterior shot with insets that zoom in on a poster for his nightly show, and Coe in the upper window.
Written by James S. Rich, the opening effectively shakes things up by having a crow tap at Coe’s window. A talking cat tackles the crow, concerned it might be a threat. From what I understand, the talking cat isn’t a surprise, but its normalization makes for a more specific conflict. Coe has no problem talking to animals (and, used sparingly by Rich, it’s special every time) but talking to ghosts is something he doesn’t believe the living can do. Whether he’s right to dismiss the possibility, Nicolette Hardy approaches Coe with concerns that her father is being played by a woman Coe has crossed paths with before. Nicolette’s mother recently passed away and Jean-Paul Hardy thinks Jane Collins is the key to reaching out to her. Nicolette needs Coe to prove Miss. Collins is a fraud.
You never hear Archer agree to take the job. A car is shown driving up to the Hardy estate and Coe is simply sitting inside. There’s a confidence in these quick transitions that readers will keep up and the book moves like a well-oiled machine. Dan Christensen is the artist and his use of greyscale gets to the heart of matters fast. Jane and Nicolette don’t get along so of course one dresses lightly while the other wears black. The magic in this book doesn’t come from a colorful place, yet there’s a spontaneity to the sparks and swirls that appear when Coe reads minds. He could be mistaken for a villain, the way he wears his mask, and it’s not clear whether he’s the greatest guy. This is where familiarity with book one would come in handy. Main characters don’t have to be likable, but I suspect the story is too hard on Jane Collins, too, and knowing Coe better would help me ascertain that.
For a while, Archer Coe has this Agatha Christie thing going on, where everything takes place on the Hardy grounds, but once Archer leaves (if for good reason), the nature of the story changes. The action stops being contained to a single location and the situation become more personal and I guess I preferred it when Archer Coe was a straight mystery, with a supernatural twist. That doesn’t mean the ending won’t appeal to readers who have been following Coe’s arc from the beginning, but I liked when there was no leaving the Hardy’s without answers. Those conditions don’t stick.
Archer Coe and the Way to Dusty Death is available now from Oni Press.