September 18, 2008

‘Necropolis’ Houses Paranormal, Criminal

By Deirdre Donahue

In the same way Buffy the Vampire Slayer mixed high school and bloodsuckers, Doug Dorst combines cops and ghosts in his Alive in Necropolis. The result is a haunted variation on Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series.

This imaginative and accomplished debut novel is set in the actual town of Colma, Calif., near San Francisco. For decades, Colma has been the Bay Area's designated city of the dead. Today, it's estimated that more than 1.5 million people are buried there.

In the fictional Necropolis, however, the dead continue their lives above ground but in spectral form. Some are good. Some are confused. And some are really bad. Historical figures actually buried there make appearances, including Arthur "Doc" Barker, one of mobster momma Ma Barker's evil sons, baseball great Lefty O'Doul and socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit.

Enter Mike Mercer, a rookie cop trying to make his way in the world and on the force. He's a terrific character. Pitch-perfect, Dorst captures the young man's confusion, insecurity and burning if inchoate desire to be a good policeman and a good man.

Although the paranormal-historical elements of Necropolis are clever, it's the inarticulate Mercer and his fellow police officers who grip the reader's attention. Dorst is particularly good at depicting the cops' non-stop, foul-mouthed, sex-crazed, faux-insulting banter. There's a reason cop stories are an entertainment evergreen in novels, movies and TV.

The novel opens when Mercer, on patrol, saves the life of the teen son of a famous director. He finds the boy almost naked, apparently drugged up, stinking of tequila, with his ankles duct-taped together. Somebody had stuffed him into a burial chamber at one of Colma's 17 cemeteries.

We follow Mercer as he tries to solve this crime. And navigate his way in love and lust with two very different women.

But there's a bigger mystery in Necropolis. Like other cops before him, Mercer becomes obsessed with the city of the dead and its ghostly residents. It's a place readers will find fascinating.

Alive in Necropolis

By Doug Dorst

Riverhead, 437 pp., $25.95 (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>