Eric is doing well for himself. In his reckless youth he used drugs, kept pace with thugs, and worked as a runner for a mobster. But with age he settled down, married the love of his life, Emma, and has a prosperous job with a prestigious advertising agency. Life is good. Until the day Eric’s past comes back to haunt him and his world gets turned upside down.
His old boss, mobster Nicholas Dove, shows up at Eric’s house with two thugs in tow. As the thugs smash the place up, Nicholas “requests” Eric’s help. It seems Nicholas has been put on the Death List, and he demands Eric do whatever it takes to get his name removed. If Eric doesn’t get Nicolas off the Death List, his thugs will kill Eric’s wife. Sounds like a pretty standard setup for a crime story, right? Well, actually there’s a little hitch in the giddyap.
Did I mention that Eric is a plush bear? Yep, he’s stuffed with fluff. As is Nicholas Dove, so named because he’s, well, a dove. Amberville, you see, isn’t populated by people, but by plush animals. They go to school, have jobs, get married, acquire bad habits and vices, love, hate…they behave just like we do. Except they’re plush. Yeah, a visit to Amberville is a hell of a ride, so buckle-up because here we go.
Knowing full well that Nicholas Dove will make good on his threat, Eric rounds up his old crew to help him track down the Death List. Problem is, no one even knows for sure it exists. That there is a Cub List for animals who want to become parents isn’t a secret, nor is it a secret that once approved the Deliverymen will bring your new cub (what all young plush are called regardless of species) to you in a shiny green pickup truck. This is the way it works in all of Mollisan Town, Amberville being one of its districts (along with Lanceheim, Tourquai, and Yok).
But there is another set of animals who also drive around in a pickup, a red one, and only late at night. They’re known as the Chauffeurs, and any animal who receives a visit from them disappears never to be seen again. That they only visit “the worn and the weary” has given rise over the years to lore of there being a master Death List from which the Chauffeurs operate. Now Eric and his crew must not only prove the List exists, but find a way to get Nicholas Dove’s name off it. Standing in their way are some very powerful individuals who have a vested interest in neither of those things happening.
Classic crime noir is the backbone around which Amberville is built, and the mystery of the Death List and what Eric and crew go through in pursuit of it makes for a cracking good crime story. But as with any truly outstanding fiction what really makes Amberville shine is the wonderful, fully realized personalities of the players. Initially acting purely out of concern for Emma, Eric comes to realize there are much larger forces at work and that his actions could have profound ramifications for all of Mollisan Town. Does he do what’s best for him and Emma, or for everyone?
Eric’s twin brother, Teddy, is a bear deeply obsessed with the concepts of good and evil, ruminating on them to the exclusion of virtually all else in life:
To expose the good to temptations is the challenge and driving force of evil. Evil derives its nourishment by luring the good stuffed animal to commit mistakes. What worried me was how unequal the battle was. Evil had a clear advantage.
Evil is restless, goodness passive. Evil constantly seeks ways to reach its goal. If one temptation isn’t enticing, evil tries another. Goodness seeks nothing, because it knows in advance how it should be good. If evil is dynamic, changeable, and intellectually stimulating, goodness is, to put it bluntly, boring.
Despite being a bear striving desperately to obtain a state of goodness Teddy is anything but boring, and his perspective on events – even in the face of some doubt as to his sanity – is arguably the most crucial one provided to the reader.
Eric’s crew is equally colorful and complicated. Tom-Tom Crow is the enforcer of the bunch. A large, rather simple-minded creature, he’s recently taken up knitting to help calm his nerves, but is still prone to devastatingly violent outbursts when under stress. Sam Gazelle is a male prostitute who specializes in S&M, and who carries a torch for Eric. Snake Marek, the final crew member, is the brains of the outfit, though exactly where his loyalties lie is a matter of some concern.
Please, do not let the fact the characters are plush animals fool you. There are episodes in Amberville as dark as you’ll find in any noir story. At one point Sam Gazelle viciously tortures one of his clients, Noah Camel, for information when it comes to the crew’s attention Noah may know something crucial about the existence of the Death List. The torture episode is relayed from Noah’s point of view, specifically as the pain-ravaged thoughts bouncing around in his head after he’s been left to die, and it is an incredibly powerful and moving piece of writing.
The idea of plush animals populating a noir novel is not one that will work for everyone, but those willing to give it a go will find Amberville to be an amazingly detailed place inhabited by a wonderfully complex cast of characters. Who just happen to be plush.
Amberville is available from Harper (ISBN: 978-0061625121).
Coming Wednesday, a visit to Lanceheim.
– Amberville by Tim Davys –