“Hello,” Woods said as she walked to her car. “Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.” She said, “Hello” to everyone she passed, and they all said “Hello” to her. Anyone who didn’t say “Hello” would get looked at pretty hard. Maybe even shot.
The end times were hell on shy people.
The end times were also pretty much hell on the newspaper industry. Already under siege by the rise of on-line media, the zombie apocalypse put the last coffin nail in a dying industry. After all, if people were taking their lives in their hands every time they left the house for work, they certainly wouldn’t want to venture out in search of a People magazine or their favourite daily. Besides—all the paperboys were dead.
Jan Woods, reporter for the Washington Tribute, is winding down her last couple of days before retirement, reporting puff pieces on dog grooming that no one is likely to read. She’s going through the motions: research story…shoot a zombie…write the story…run down a zombie with her car…etc. etc. Just another day in the big city. However, when that city is Washington, from time to time one must forget about the mindless undead and write about the brainless living. Send in the politicians!
As it so happens, Jan’s editor has an interesting story for her to pursue. A nasty rumour has surfaced online, “Nasty” being the term used these days to describe the walking dead. Nasty, as in the President’s been dead for a while, but he’s still walking around, glad-handing and kissing babies (nasty!) and all the assorted duties of the commander in chief. Or, Cadaver in Chief, if the rumours are true.
Not since Watergate had such a juicy tip fallen into the hands of a Washington reporter, crazy though it sounds. If the president is really a former president, a “ManChompian” candidate of sorts, then it’s a conspiracy that reaches to the highest level of government, and Jan’s got herself a scoop that could end her career on a high note. However, if the plot goes as deep as that, Jan’s got a scoop that could end her—permanently.
There is a bit of a snag—the juicy tip comes from one Rick Klinger, on-line conspiracy freak and blogger for Truthbuffet.org, a left wing “political” site akin to the Huffington Post. Known as a bit of a loon, Klinger (who bears a striking resemblance to the odious Alex Jones—minus the obvious psychopathy) has a source within the Republican administration that claims President Brick Bradley died months earlier during a political fundraiser and the man making the rounds is actually an imposter. However, Klinger is also a paranoid loon (again, Alex Jones) and won’t divulge his source for Jan to check out. As for her queries to the White House:
“Quote: The President is alive and well and you’re an idiot and don’t call here again. Unquote.”
Jan is nothing if not persistent, and during the course of the next several days investigates the hotel (and morgue) where the president was rumoured to have died. Next thing you know, there’s a parcel in her apartment, containing a dwarf zombie with a huge appetite. He’s also got an explosive personality. Maybe there is something to the rumours after all?
From there it’s an action packed adventure through Washington and its surroundings as Jan searches for answers while avoiding the attentions of mysterious government operatives and having conversations in dark parking lots with the likes of, “Debbie Does Dallas”, the “Deep Throat” of this decidedly anti-first amendment administration and their zombie minions. Luckily, Jan is very pro-second amendment (who wouldn’t be in a world where take out dinner describes what might happen to you?) and has gotten pretty good with that hot pink Uzi she got at 7-11. The story climaxes with a literal assault on the first amendment as Jan and her coworkers fight for their lives in the offices of the Washington Tribune, and shortly thereafter, a reelection rally that no one would forget—if they survive it.
Cadaver in Chief is a tongue in cheek political mystery that pays homage to movies like The Manchurian Candidate and All the Presidents Men—with zombies. It’s also a nice little novella. However, if there’s any problem with this mini-novel, it’s that it could use a little fleshing out. Steve Hockensmith creates an interesting mystery full of government operatives and smarmy politicians, political apathy and conspiracy nuts (who may not be so nutty) and the type of experiments that might get a scientist branded “mad”, but ten chapters is barely enough space to scratch the surface. By the end of the novella, I felt a bit—unsatisfied. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because the story was lacking, rather that it lacked a bit of story. Or, to put it another way—this novella screams for a sequel.
As for the main character, Jan Woods may be the stereotypically “plucky” reporter, but she’s also days away from retirement, much like “that cop” in any police procedural, and it’s refreshing to see a character who’s not a young, perky blonde with crazy computer skills and a body to die for. Nor is she the grizzled Ed Asner type, simply a good reporter who’s become slightly apathetic in an age where no one respects her medium (newsprint) yet still wants to get the truth out there.
Of course, good dialogue is something I’ve always appreciated in a novel, and it’s something Steve Hockensmith excels at. Granted, in real life not everyone is witty or wittily sarcastic (although they might like to think so), but, as I’ve said before–smart, funny dialogue is a defining feature of his previous novels.
I was a little worried at times that this was simply going to be a put-down of conservative (read that as Republican) politicians, but as time went on, the satiric vitriol came down pretty much equally on both sides of the aisle. If there’s one thing that crosses party lines, it’s the capacity of politicians to set themselves up for ridicule.
Overall, Cadaver in Chief is a bit of zombie fun that partisans of both liberal and conservative bent can sink their teeth into.
(A word of apology to Steve Hockensmith: He was gracious enough to send me a preview copy of Cadaver in Chief back in November and grant me an interview, yet it’s taken until now for me to get a review together. I’ve no readily available excuse except to claim a bit of “zombie fatigue” which has resulted in the delay. Steve Hockensmith is a great writer and a good guy, and if you’d like to learn more about his works and process, he maintains a blog at http://www.stevehockensmith.com)