‘Indulge every curiosity you’ve ever had about cadavers’ – A Trick I Learned from a Dead Man by Kitty Aldredge

At barely 25, Lee Hart is already a veteran of tragedy. His mother has recently passed away after a cruel and prolonged struggle with breast cancer. His emotionally unstable younger brother, Ned, is dependent on him for everything, and has been deaf since they were kids. This, also, was sort of Lee’s fault. Their father ran away long ago. The step-father left behind in their house is vegetating with grief in front of continuous episodes of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. All in all, this is quite a grim place for any story to begin.

One more thing: Lee has recently been taken on as a trainee by Shakespeare & Son, the local funeral home. If you were consulting Aldridge on the story alone, you might be tempted to suggest that she tone the misery down just a little: as a teacher once said to me, ‘Nobody likes Black Beauty: way too down on his luck.’ You might also presume that there’s nowhere for Lee’s fortunes to go but Up.

Amazingly, you’d be (very) wrong. Even more amazingly, Aldridge pulls off her panorama of melancholy with writing that is funny, convincing, and engaging. At least until the book’s closing stages, things don’t seem over-done or implausible.

The author spent some time in a funeral home as part of her research and it shows. Take the opening scene, for example:

You knock first before you go in. You don’t wait of course.
Good morning, Mr Gillespie. Lee here. Nice day.
Everyone is known by their formal name: Mr, Mrs, Miss. We have not yet had a Lord or Lady, but we had a Doctor and a Major. Babies and kiddies are their first name. Everyone is someone. They have status, the dead… It’s true, you’re somebody when you’re dead, you get respect.

It’s as simple as knocking on the door of a room in which there are only dead bodies. This is the kind of detail that lends Aldridge’s novel verisimilitude and fascination. There are arguments over how much makeup to apply to the female deceased; there are lips sewn together to avoid gaping; there are moments of tension, as when Lee fumbles and one of the clients gets a nasty whack on the head. There is rarely any cheap symbolism forced upon us; rather, Lee’s warm, optimistic and occasionally surprising voice serves as a likeable guide through a range of morbid and often comic material.

Because all of this is so well written, the novel trundles on without much of a plot for quite some time. There is a by-the-numbers, on-off, generally quite disappointing romance angle with the woman who delivers flowers to the parlour each morning. It’s so standard I can only assume it was conceived as a way to provide suspense or relief when the Death side of things threatened to suck the tone down a little too far. And, even more disastrously, the ‘momentous event’ that Aldridge’s novel leads up to – something big has to happen at the end of a novel as pedestrian as this – is predictable after about thirty pages. Actually, I reckon you could probably guess it from just reading the blurb.

Any Cop?: A Trick I Learned will make you laugh. In a short timespan – the whole thing can be read in about three hours – you will engage with the characters and indulge every curiosity you’ve ever had about cadavers. Although the predictability does not detract too much from the many pleasures to be had here, I did find myself wishing that Aldridge had found some other, less clichéd climax to an otherwise very accomplished piece of writing.

John Roache

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