Short takes: ‘Famous Men who Never Lived’ and ‘Meddling Kids’

January 28, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 28, 2020

The New York City that Helen Nash and Vikram Bhatnagar travel through is not the one they knew. The two main characters in K. Chess’s 2019 debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived, are UDPs, or universally displaced persons. Their New York City has been destroyed; they are permanently cut off from everyone and every place they ever knew.

The protragonists are among about 160,000 New Yorkers from an alternative timeline who escaped nuclear catastrophe through a sort of one-way dimensional portal. Their timeline diverged from ours about 11 decades ago, in 1910. Some landmarks and neighborhoods in the new New York City are familiar; others are entirely different.

The same is true of the linguistic, political, cultural and technological landscapes for the UDPs. Back home, the refugees used ordinators, not smartphones; a world war in their 20th century saw America besieged by a hostile Latin American power; gay people there were called verts and hadn’t won marriage equality.

It’s no wonder that so many UDPs are lost in the new world — although to be fair, Hel (who plays a more prominent role than Vikram, her lover), didn’t fit in so well back home. She was a cancer surgeon there who’d ceded custody of her son to her ex-husband; here, she’s an unemployed layabout.

But Nash has developed a fixation with Ezra Sleight, a popular science fiction author in her timeline, whose work may now be nearly extinct except for a copy of one of his novels that Bhatnagar brought over. When she locates Sleight’s home — a museum devoted to the author in her world; the home of a recently deceased hoarder in ours — she seizes on the idea of starting a museum devoted to the UDPs’ lost culture.

But her attempt to persuade a museum curator to back the project come to nought. And even worse, the curator doesn’t return Sleight’s book, The Pyronauts. The apparent theft of this priceless volume sends Nash into a downward spiral that jeopardizes her already fragile connections to everything in this world.

Chess masterfully builds her story. I keenly felt Nash’s and Bhatnagar’s anguish over their forever inaccessible home, while cringing at Nash’s ham-handed attempts to retrieve her lover’s missing book. My one complaint about the tale is that things arrive at a conclusion that’s a bit too neat; still, Famous Men Who Never Lived is a terrific novel that many readers will enjoy.

Edgar Cantero’s 2017 novel, Meddling Kids, is built on a charmingly goofy question: What if the young detectives in the Scooby-Doo cartoon grew up and went their separate ways? The Barcelona native’s second English-language novel opens in the 1990, some 13 years after the Blyton Summer Detectives Club — two boys, two girls and their faithful dog — caught the Sleepy Lake monster.

But the survivors — vagabond Andy Rodriguez, struggling grad student Kerri Hollis and occasional psychiatric ward inpatient Nate Rogers — are haunted by that adventure, which was their last case. Rodriguez gathers up her two remaining colleagues and they return to Blyton Hills, Ore., in an attempt to exorcise old demons. They’re joined by Tim, great-grandson of Sean the Weimaraner, and the ghost of Peter Manner, their other missing member, who overdosed after a brief but highly successful acting career. (Only Rogers can see Manner.)

Upon returning to their old stomping grounds, the three erstwhile detectives and their faithful dog discover that mysteries still abound around Sleepy Lake. Not only is the lake home to the creepy old Deboën mansion, whose deceased proprietor evidently dabbled in black magic, but it’s linked to an abandoned gold mine that harbors some very nasty creatures.

The gang soon encounter strange creatures they call wheezers. They also race to save the townsfolk while squaring off against someone who still has an interest in the Deboën property — someone who hopes to execute an extremely nefarious scheme.

I found my attention flagging over the first third of the book or so as Cantero set up the various story elements. But the action is pretty entertaining once everything gets going. The an excursion into the mine and the battle in the old mansion are among some thoroughly enjoyable set pieces. I was never particularly invested in the detectives, or in the romance that develops, but Cantero certainly knows how to tell an amusing tale.

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