I was beginning to think that paranormal romance novel writers were running out of supernatural characters to star in their steamy tales. Vampires have been played out for a while. Werewolves aren’t quite as overdone, but that’s because there’s a fundamental difficulty in making a sprouting hair and a snout sexy. Ghosts and witches have been staples for a while, so they’re not particularly fresh. Speaking of “not fresh”: Zombies? Come on. No one wants body parts falling off in the middle of a love scene. So I have to applaud First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones for coming up with the Grim Reaper 2.0 – sexier, sassier, and scythe-free.
First Grave on the Right is the RITA-award winning first in a series of books about Charley Davidson, a PI and single reaper-about-town. Charley doesn’t guide souls to the light; she literally IS the light—the dead pass through Charley in order to move on to the next plane of existence. And because Charley can see and converse with the departed, she’s also pretty darned good at solving murders. Charley assists the Albuquerque police department on difficult cases and has developed a reputation as a spooky but effective asset to the police force. While Charley is working to solve the murder of three lawyers, she is also trying to solve the mystery of the phantom lover who shows up in her dreams and later while she is awake…leading to some awkward-sounding make-out sessions in front of various witnesses.
Overall, this was a decent escapist read. Jones does a good job keeping the pace of the two mysteries moving along. While I don’t think the story would stand up as a straight mystery, it served well enough for the mystery-within-a-romance-novel format. It was also pretty clear that Jones was setting up for a series (I’ve since learned that she is up to book four.) The lawyers’ murders was a one-book arc whereas the story of the phantom lover (who is revealed in this book, but larger questions about him remain) seems likely to stretch over at least one more book. In addition, Jones has thrown in an attractive skip tracer, Garrett, against whom Davidson strikes sparks. It seems likely that a “Team Edward/Team Jacob”-style romantic triangle is coming at some point in future books as well. The reaper side of Davidson’s life was well-imagined and unlike any version of the grim reaper character I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t love the reveal about the real identity of the phantom lover. I can’t say much more without spoiling the book, but the dark-and-tragic lover thing has been done many times before by others, and done better to boot.
Jones’ heroine had a smart mouth and sassy attitude and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Jones was going for a Buffy/Veronica Mars feel for Charley Davidson. Unfortunately, Jones got a little TOO quip-happy at times, and the constant barrage of one-liners and snark became annoying and distracting. Jones did populate her book with a number of entertaining side characters—she would do well to tone down her heroine for future books and let the side characters bring the quirk.
Overall I give First Grave on the Right 2 stars. It was fine, but nothing special. I’m a little shocked it won a RITA award, all things considered. While it had plenty of decent aspects to it, there was very little that felt truly new or fresh. Which Is a real waste of the first new take on a supernatural/paranormal romance character that I’ve seen in a while.