Have you made a deal with the devil? Worried about how your soul will be conveyed to its eternal torment upon the expiry of that deal? Not sure you can trust the Grim Reaper with so important a task? Never fear: the Collectors are here! And they are going to take you straight to Hell.
Chris F. Holm mashes up the concept of the damned, human soul collector with the tradition of noir pulp fiction. Sam Thornton hops from body to body, preferring to possess dead ones, all the better for maintaining his tenuous link to his humanity. He travels across the world collecting the souls of the damned at the behest of his handler, the dangerous and sexy Lilith (yes, that Lilith). But when Sam tries to collect the soul of a 17-year-old who committed triple homicide on her family, he gets serious backlash. With no idea why Kate’s soul is pure, Sam nevertheless takes her on the run and becomes a fugitive from both Heaven and Hell while he tries to sort things out.
Holm wastes no time propelling us into the main part of the story. We get a brief prologue that introduces us to the nature of Sam’s job, and then he’s off to collect Kate’s soul—a task at which he fails miserably. He finds himself in a catch-22, because failing to collect a soul is an act of rebellion that might trigger Judgement Day … yet collecting an innocent soul is also a J-Day trigger. So what’s a poor collector supposed to do?
Sam’s answer is “run like Hell” for the entire book. This gets kind of old, fast, especially when he repeatedly attempts to stash Kate somewhere “for her safety”, she refuses, and then they end up getting attacked. While I suppose this structure is reassuring, it is also very formulaic. This is the result of Dead Harvest’s central problem: namely, the stakes are the same for the entire book.
By dropping the apocalypse on us at the beginning of the book, Holm leaves the tension with nowhere to go but down. With each demon Sam encounters encouraging him to collect Kate’s soul, with each close scrape with the cops, Holm’s action-oriented writing entertains. But there is little question that, by the end of the story, Sam is going to prevail. There’s no sense that he’ll have to sacrifice—I mean, what has he got to lose? Aside from Sam, and maybe Kate, none of the other characters acquire more than one or two dimensions.
Flashbacks reveal how Sam became a collector, how a demon dragged him into the sordid business back in the 1930s. Although I wasn’t a fan of how Holm scattered these throughout the book, I’m glad they are there; I liked learning more about Sam’s backstory. That being said, I might prefer reading that novel instead of Dead Harvest.
This is a book where I really like the concept but have so many reservations about the structure and content … there are plenty of ways I can think of to improve it. I’d like to see a larger, more dynamic cast of characters. I wouldn’t mind more exploration of the mythos Holm has created for his angels and demons. Surely in his several decades of collecting Sam would have found more informants than a few piddly demons!
After some more reflection, above all else, what would have clinched Dead Harvest for me would be more meaningful exploration of Sam’s existential crisis. Holm seems to do his best to hammer home the point that it is only a matter of when, not if Sam becomes as soulless and deranged as the other Collector, Bishop. And this is the most fascinating facet of the mythos Holm is creating: how do Collectors deal with their slow descent into Hell? Do they ever meet up to compare notes? Again, Holm spends more time in “thriller” mode than he does in more meditative modes, and this makes for a much less satisfying story.
If, unlike me, you have more experience reading noir fiction, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy this book more than I did. For me, however, Dead Harvest was a hollow read.