Rejuvenating the body was, it turns out, the easy part. Twenty years hence, a second shot at youth is available to those who can afford "the Treatment" from the Harley Street clinic of Nottingham Biosciences. But though the body may be young again, the mind remains weighed down by the years, and that can even lead to psychosis; they call it the Tithonus Effect, after a character from Greek mythology who was granted eternal life, but would continue to age throughout it.
Nottingham Biosciences's solution to the Tithonus Effect was the Great Spa, a vast edifice just outside London where the "new-young" go to ease their spirits and learn how to feel young again. It is here that Detective Chief Inspector Rob Oates is sent in the small hours to clear up the murder of one Mr. Prudence Egwu, a financier who had been staying at the Spa. This would appear to be an open-and-shut case, as there's already a suspect awaiting interrogation—a groundskeeper named Ali Farooz. But there's always the chance that Farooz could be a stooge, promised the Treatment in exchange for taking the fall in the short term. Oates's instincts tell him that something is not right here, a feeling that will only grow stronger as the day progresses.
Ivo Stourton's third novel has an intriguing setup, not least in the Great Spa itself—or "St. Margaret's" as it’s known to those on the inside, for the interior of the Spa has been designed to resemble an archetypal English school of the 1970s. The idea was to remind people of when they felt happiest, in order to help them focus on recuperation; it wasn't possible to tailor the experience for everyone individually, but this composite setting was the closest thing to a consensus.
The Great Spa points to two themes that become central to The Happier Dead. One is the perpetuation of hierarchy: with the rich and powerful able literally to renew themselves, the social order has become ossified (as reflected in the school setting of St. Margaret's: it wasn't everyone’s experience of school, but it was the experience of those with the most clout, so it became privileged—and the pattern repeats in wider society). Small wonder, perhaps, that riots akin to those seen across England in August 2011 are fomenting outside of the Spa.
The second theme represented by the Great Spa is one of separate worlds. Not only is St. Margaret's frozen in 1976 (references to anything that occurred after that date are banned, for fear of disrupting the convalescence), its time passes differently, as it keeps to a twelve-hour day—the Great Spa is, to all intents and purposes, a parallel world. Outside, when Oates begins to track down the disenfranchised individuals who came into contact with Egwu, there is also the sense that he is crossing a threshold into another domain. So Stourton's future society is presented as a set of disconnected little worlds, which only occasionally interact.
Oates, the character moving between these worlds, is a former soldier, haunted by his experiences in Syria and the death of his young daughter, and prone to occasional outbursts of violence. In some ways, although he may like to think otherwise, he is an open book:
He was not special or unpredictable, he was not a creature with independent agency, he was nothing but a bundle of emotional needs awaiting manipulation. (p. 195)
This is the key problem at the heart of The Happier Dead: we see everything through Oates's eyes, and he is too detached for it to have real force. For one thing, his characterization pushes him regrettably towards the stereotypical emotionless and violent male protagonist who is all too common in contemporary science fiction.
For another, we don't gain the experiences that would glue the book's world together. To be frank, I never really believed in the Tithonus Effect—as an abstract concept that would be plausible within this scenario, sure; as a lived phenomenon on the page, no. We do see the complex feelings that the new-young have about death once they've undergone the Treatment:
Deep in their fresh new bones was buried the memory of what it meant to get arthritis in the fingers, to lose your sight, to feel your knees when you climbed the stairs. It made them cagey of their perfect bodies where a healthy young man or woman was generous with their strength and beauty. They believed in death, these rich immortals, in a way the real-young never could, though the real-young would be in the ground soon enough when compared to the new-young's eternity. (p. 78)
This brings us closer to how the elite of Stourton's future think, but it's not there for the feelings that drove the creation of the Great Spa in the first place; we have to take it on trust that the yearnings for what the Treatment could bring, and then the impacts of its psychological side effects, were so strong that they created the world that we see in these pages—and taking it on trust is not enough. Likewise, at the other end of the social scale, discontent bubbles away; but we don't feel it enough that the riots truly make sense, or become real.
As a mystery, The Happier Dead hangs together well enough: the clues are there to be spotted; the new technology plays a suitably pivotal role; the solution comes just out of left field, but is plausible with hindsight. There's an air of villainous mustache-twirling to the scene in which the grand scheme is explained to Oates, which feels like something of a misstep by a novel which has clearly set out to go beyond straightforward detection to explore serious issues. But the final confrontation brings it all together—still a piece of quintessential melodrama, but driven by and embodying the concerns which have been at the novel's heart. It comes a little too late to satisfy completely; but, on the occasions when The Happier Dead reaches that pitch, it sings like a serious-minded adventure story should.
David Hebblethwaite was born in the north of England, went to university in the Midlands, and now lives in the south. He has reviewed for various venues, including Vector, The Zone, Fiction Uncovered, and We Love This Book. He blogs at Follow the Thread.