Ten Dead Comedians Reworks Agatha Christie


By Fred Van Lente
Quirk Books/Penguin Random House, 289 pages

Is there a worse kept secret in the entire entertainment world than the fact that a lot of comedians are seriously screwed up individuals? The world of comedy is littered with self-inflicted corpses, but what if someone decided to pick out nine stand up comics and do the job for them? That's the premise of Fred Van Lente's debut mystery novel Ten Stand Ups, Nine Murders, One Solution.  Van Lente has hitherto been known for writing zombie comics and the occasional graphic novel, including Cowboys and  Aliens, which was made into a film that bombed critically and at the box office.

One suspects that some of Van Lente's experience got exorcised in his novel, as its pivotal character, Dustin Walker, was once a big late night TV star who fell from grace after making a trashy but surprise hit film, I Married a Cat. It spawned a series of ludicrous sequels that ultimately exiled its creator to a fate worse than death: celebrity irrelevance. That is, unless you're an insider and still think guys like Walker have pull. When his personal assistant, Meredith, invites nine individuals to come to Walker's private island to discuss a future "project," the allure proves too great to resist. To be sure, their motives are less than lofty—vanity, flagging careers, seeking to bask in reflected glory, perchance to brag…. They come, but Walker is nowhere in evidence, the Wi-Fi code doesn't work, groundskeeper Dave is missing, Meredith seems clueless about everything, and there's no way off the island until the boat that brought them returns. In short, they are left their own devices, a tool chest that mostly contains professional jealousy, one-upmanship, and mutual loathing. And then things really go wrong: a video showing Walker's apparent suicide is prelude to stand ups meeting grisly ends.

Comedy fans will entertain themselves by matching egos and biographies to the imperiled islanders. The washed-up TV host Walker has many parallels—among them, Joey Bishop, Chevy Chase, Jerry Lewis, and David Brenner—and his character is probably a composite, but how about Janet Kahn, the Real Queen of Mean? Joan Rivers, anyone? Or Margaret Cho as the inspiration for lesbian comic Ruby Ng, who blew her career by uttering something unutterable. It's pretty hard not to think of Sarah Silverman as a template for Zoe Schwartz, the gagster who delights in talking about her vagina to the point where she becomes—if I might mix body parts—the butt of her own routine. How can we not imagine Sam Kinison as a stand-in for William Griffith, aka/ "Billy the Contractor," a rich jerk who pretends to represent "Real America?" Is Dante Dupree part Richard Pryor? Who is Oliver Rees, aka "Orange Baby Man," a decidedly unfunny person who portrays a grown infant and has a knack for trade marking associated kitsch? (Andy Kaufman?) Or T J Martinez, who fancies himself a revolutionary Latino—as long as it doesn't crimp his comfortable lifestyle? And then there's improv teacher Steve Gordon, whom TJ pretends not to know, though they once worked together.

The structure and content of the book is pretty much that of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. This is, depending on your point of view, either homage or intellectual pilfering. I'm willing to give Van Lente the benefit of the doubt and call it a Christie update. Let's face it, we don't read many mysteries because they are literary masterpieces; we consume them for cheap thrills and as respites from that denser genre we label "literature." Van Lente is not a great stylist, but he enlivens his text with excerpted monologues from his comedians and demonstrates, if nothing else, that he knows his way around comedy clubs. His debut novel is entertaining. It's summertime. That's enough.

Rob Weir


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