I picked Diana Rowland’s 2012 novel Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues o read after a painstaking selective process: I needed something to read and it was the first book I saw at eye level in the library. Why more authors don’t arrange for their books to be in the sweet zone  I don’t know.
Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues is the second book in Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series, of which I knew nothing until I picked up this book. (F&SF is huge, and even someone who, like me, spends their life following it cannot be aware of everything.) In these doleful days of book fragments and meandering, plotless tomes, selecting an intermediate book in a series as my introduction to that series can be pretty risky. I am happy to say in this case it paid off: Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues works on its own and as part of a series.
Angel Crawford seemed fated for a short, unpleasant life as a pill-popping, alcoholic, career criminal, but a life-altering car crash and a heart-to-heart with hunky cop Marcus turned her life around. For the first time in her life, she has a job she wants to keep, she has a new boyfriend who, unlike her last boyfriend, isn’t the sort of pill-popping loser who would sell her a stolen car, and she’s managed to shake her dependence on pills.
Cynics might claim that Angel’s dedication to her job at the St. Edwards Parish Coroner’s Office is less due to a new-found regard for public service and more because Marcus turned a dying Angel into a brain-eating zombie. The Coroner’s office is basically an all you can eat brain buffet for Angel….
The story begins with a seemingly standard pick-up, retrieving the corpse of a man who died after a fall. Falls are the leading cause of death by injury, so nothing unusual there. What is unusual is the masked man with a gun who shows up after hours at the Coroner’s Office to steal the body.
And it gets weirder.
Unsurprisingly, zombies are very good at smelling brains, but Angel never got a whiff of brain off the dead guy, even though his head had cracked like cheap plaster when it hit the floor. Despite the lack of a body, the cops manage to ID the dead man from a fingerprint on his watch (the man in the mask didn’t think to grab the personal effects). The dead man’s identity provides an explanation of sorts; the dead man was Zeke Lyons, a fellow zombie.
This only raises more questions: not only did the dead guy’s co-workers claim that the dead man was one Norman Kearny, but weeks before he took that fatal fall, Zeke had been stalked and decapitated by zombie-hunter Ed Quinn. Zeke should have been too dead and too buried to fall down a flight of stairs.
There aren’t many zombies; it is difficult to make one and zombie food supplies are limited, especially the sort whose acquisition won’t draw official attention. The older zombies—and a careful zombie can last a long time—have chosen to limit their numbers. They’ve also tried to keep the existence of zombies a close secret. Ed Quinn’s crusade makes it clear that someone was careless enough to let the secret slip.
As Angel and her fellow partially-deceased American friends will find out, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Ed may have been willing to settle for simply killing zombies, but there are people who have a darker use for them, very determined and ruthless people.
Someone like Angel, someone dismissed as a loser, someone very few people would miss, is perfect for their needs. It probably would have been much better for Angel not to have drawn their attention….
The first question I asked myself (in my reviewer persona) is “what, if any, is the relationship between this and iZombie?” (iZombie being a TV series that premiered in 2014; it is based on a comic book series that premiered in 2010.) Both the TV series and the Rowland series feature zombified women working at the local morgue while fighting crime; the comic on which the TV series is based predates the first White Trash Zombie novel, My Life as a White Trash Zombie, by about a year, but appears to be very different from both the TV series and the White Trash Zombie books. The TV series and the novels differ in focus and details, not least of which is the protagonist in iZombie is someone whose promising career was derailed by her new condition, whereas Angel’s zombification put her on the path to rebuilding her, uh, life. I am inclined to believe this is yet another case of authors coming up with similar ideas more or less simultaneously—in retrospect the idea of a zombie working in a morgue really seems like a no-brainer—but if I understand the sequence of events, any influence was from White Trash Zombie to the TV series iZombie, not the other way round.
A scholar of zombieism in popular culture would probably digress at this point to marvel over how influential the 1985 black comedy Return of the Living Dead turned out to be. Your classic Romero-style living dead just killed and ate the living; it was Return that added the bit about zombies wanting to eat brains in particular. Rowland tries to provide a science-y explanation both for Angel’s new affliction (a parasite) and its side-effects. I don’t necessarily buy the explanation, but … hey, it’s at least as plausible as any of Larry Niven’s worlds. Which I guess means that I am prepared to defend this as hard science fiction.
Some readers will want to be warned that there’s also some character growth in here. Judging from where she is now, Angel must have been pretty self-loathing in the first book; in this book, she’s still working on becoming someone she can respect. Her self-improvement project involves everything from work attitudes, boundary issues with her boyfriend, and education. It’s not all slamming people’s heads against armoured glass until something breaks, although there is a certain amount of that.
A fair chunk of the book deals with how Angel’s youthful indiscretions hang around her neck like a millstone. She might be law abiding now, the odd homicidal fury aside , but her reputation, not to mention that conviction for accepting stolen goods, continues to haunt her, As does her failure to finish high school. A lot of this is driven by class: she grew up poor, her single-parent dad is a drunk, and while it would have been trivial for her lawyer to make sure that a felony committed as a minor wouldn’t be a matter of public record, her public defender seems to have assessed her as a white trash girl who was going to end up in jail anyway—so he didn’t bother.
There are at two popular models for series: there is the Game of Rapes/Wheel of Please Stop model, in which the author heaves a hunk of ongoing story at the reader every few years. Then there is what I will call the mystery model, in which each book in the series is both a standalone and potentially part of a series arc. For examples, see the V.I. Warshawski books, the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, and the Sano Ichiro series. I myself prefer the second model, but only because it is in every possible way superior to the first approach, which is an abomination.
While this book is part of a series, Rowland is a dab hand at giving the reader enough information to understand Angel’s situation and background without stopping the narrative dead with infodumps. You don’t need to read the first book to read this one. She’s also got a fair sense of humour, always a plus.
There is one little dangling plot thread that I will rot-13 for spoilers:
Gur nagntbavfgf nccrne gb unir perngrq n oenaq arj xvaq bs mbzovr cnenfvgr, bar gung pna fcernq sebz n fvatyr ovgr, bar jubfr ubfgf ner n ybg zber yvxr gur Jnyxvat Qrnq fbeg bs mbzovrf.
That seems like the kind of plot device likely to figure in later books. At least Angel thought to mention that interesting development to other people, rather than keeping it to herself.
It was my error not to pack the book I had intended to read; it was sheer accident that placed Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues at eye height in the library This could have ended badly, but it did not. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more books by Rowland.
1: No lower than knee level, not so high I need to back off to see that shelf. Top shelves are OK for large, prominent works but the lower shelves may as well be used for long-term storage.
2: In her defense, we only see her crush one guy’s skull and that was arguably in self-defense. And she does pause to muse that really, killing people should bother her more than it does. Most of the brains she eats are from people who died of not-related-to-Angel causes. Most of the zombies we see in these books try very hard to find niches that won’t land them in an episode of America’s Most Wanted. That said, there’s no way all of them could have avoided killing innocent people over the years.
Speaking of murder, Ed Quinn, the zombie-hunter, is presented as a sympathetic character who had what seemed like reasonable reasons for doing what he did, Nevertheless, he’s a flat-out serial killer who had better not be a recurring character in the series. Just saying.