Approximately twenty years from now London is besieged by rioters, with much of its population either confined to their homes or driven out of the city. But, if you’re one of the rich then there’s little reason to care. Thanks to Nottingham Biosciences, the rich and powerful can live forever, their bodies rejuvenated and their memories adjusted. There is even an enormous holiday dome looming over London – the Great Spa or Avalon – in which the newly young are reborn and where they can relive their schooldays in an idealistically reimagined boarding school, St Margaret’s, frozen in time to 1976. When one of its boarders is murdered, Detective Chief Inspector Rob Oates of the Metropolitan Police is sent into the school to investigate, his body armour swapped for a 1970s’ suit. Not that this matters too much to Oates. A driver of vintage cars long past their best, Oates is almost a man out of time himself, not least because of recent events at home which have driven a wedge between himself and his family.
There is more to murder victim Prudence Egwu than first meets the eye (hardly surprising in this artificial world where so little is as it seems). His brother was not only the inventor of the rejuvenation cure, the Treatment, but he also disappeared without trace several years before. Tracing the connection and following a trail of corruption and deception, both inside the Great Spa and within the diseased streets of London, Oates uncovers details of the greatest threat to face the reborn rich, a condition called Tithonus. While the body may be returned to a much younger state and stay that way perhaps indefinitely, the mind might not be as easily adjusted. Perhaps an immortal future is not so bright after all (as the title suggests). Fixing the problem could certainly be worth a murder of two. But of course the biggest side effect of the defeat of physical death is the unrest it has created for all of those outside the walls of Avalon, for whom death is now a consequence of not being rich and where the promise of eternal youth is an unimaginably more powerful lure to wrongdoing than money ever could be.
The Happier Dead paints a fascinating, dark and disturbing vision of London in the near future. There is much here that is familiar – not least the riots or Oates’ background as a soldier in the Middle East – and this is exaggerated by the strong influence of the 1970s – the flares, the wide collars, the never ending loop of Demis Roussos tracks on the frozen school’s radio. But the divide between rich and poor has now been taken to its extreme, thanks to the science fiction elements of the dome, its medical facilities, and the mind games.
I really enjoyed getting to know Rob Oates. He’s damaged and he suffers but there is also a life to him that contrasts greatly with the reborn elderly that we meet – men and women once in their 70s, 80s or 90s, who now grow used to young limbs and first love all over again in the rather ridiculous albeit seductive environment of a 1970s’ boarding school.
My one issue with The Happier Dead is its conclusion which seems out of tune with the rest of the book, distancing us from Oates, and it did leave me a little dissatisfied (although the solution to the crime itself is well done indeed). Nevertheless, the novel is full of thought-provoking themes, to do with eternal life but also to do with social unrest, corruption and the ever increasing divide between rich and poor. These ideas are mixed very well into the book’s murder mystery and thriller elements which drive the narrative along at a rate of knots that makes The Happier Dead extremely difficult to put down. The Happier Dead is a fast and entertaining thriller, and very well-written, but it is also a clever and thought-provoking social commentary on the future that we might be shaping for ourselves right now.