- By John Scalzi
- Tor Books
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Andrea M. Pawley
- October 4, 2023
Charlie struggles to be a bad guy. Maybe his cat can tell him what to do.
The vases at Uncle Jake’s funeral are a surprise. Their engravings read, “See you in Hell,” “Not soon enough,” and “Suck it, motherfucker.” Charlie was estranged from his billionaire uncle, a parking-lot magnate with little in the way of people skills. Uncle Jake once sent Charlie and his now ex-wife a wedding gift of berry spoons and a note predicting how long their union would last. Unbeknownst to Charlie, the parking business was simply a lucrative front for Uncle Jake’s real profession.
Charlie, for his part, used to have a good life, but now he’s an underemployed substitute teacher dreading the day his half-siblings will be able to sell his deceased father’s house out from under him. If that happens, then Charlie and Hera, the stray cat he adopted a few months before, will be forced to live in Charlie’s nearly kaput Nissan Maxima.
Once, Charlie was a journalist, but owning the local watering hole is his current dream:
“I’m not saying I started looking at McDougal’s Pub as a viable career option because I felt the icy finger of death in the idea I had aged out of typing bubbly nonsense for nineteen-year-olds pretending to be excited about questionable skin care products they’d been sent for free. But I’m not saying I didn’t either.”
But buying the bar can only happen with the acquisition of $3.4 million, and Charlie is in the process of being turned down for a loan of that amount when Mathilda Morrison shows up. Her job is to do everything the late Jake Baldwin wanted her to do — with all the moral flexibility such a mandate implies. She’s the one who gets Charlie to attend the funeral as a favor to his uncle.
When he does, he’s shocked to encounter several fellow mourners — “stocky, bald men who hadn’t bothered to rid themselves of their overcoats” — attempting to confirm that Uncle Jake is, in fact, dead. One feels for a pulse. Another is ready to stab the cadaver through the heart. A thermographic camera verifies to a third that the “corpse is corpse temperature.” It turns out, these thugs’ even more thuggish bosses are the ones who sent the crude vases.
Shortly thereafter, Charlie’s home blows up, severing his ties to his siblings once and for all. Luckily, the sad-sack 32-year-old is saved by his cat, who happens to own another house nearby where Charlie can stay. Even more luckily, Hera is smart enough to type, gather intelligence, and verify that Uncle Jake was, like the ne’er-do-wells at his memorial, a not-so-good guy. She also manages the mounting threats to Charlie’s life from Jake’s fellow lawbreakers, all of whom want to eliminate the younger man and divide up his uncle’s lucrative government contracts among themselves.
These circumstances soon beg the question: Why crash at your cat’s house when you’ve learned your deceased uncle has a volcanic lair just a few private-jet flights away? Why, indeed.
Of course, the trip to the island lair may be easy for Charlie, but absorbing the first PowerPoint presentation he’s shown upon arrival, “What Does It Mean to Be a Villain,” is a challenge. The presenter insists that “‘villain’ is not a state of mind or value judgment…It’s a job title” — one that may include such dubious tasks as giving “the ability to shoot down foreign satellites to…the United States Department of Agriculture.”
Following in his uncle’s footsteps is more bureaucratic than Charlie anticipates. Large-scale villainy, it seems, is conducted on a tight budget that doesn’t include high-tech conference rooms or surround-sound. Rogues these days must menace each other over Zoom. And when the unionized dolphins who protect the island threaten to strike, Charlie has to be his own labor negotiator:
“Do they talk?” I asked.
The dolphin chittered something. “Who is this fucknugget?” is what came out of a nearby speaker.
“I guess that’s a yes,” I said.
“Fucknugget! Fucknugget!” the other dolphins started chanting in unison.
The vulgar cetaceans’ penchant for creative insults yields not only “Bourgeois fistula! Bourgeois fistula!” but also another of the book’s many hilarious scenes.
When Charlie discovers what else he controls that his uncle’s underworld nemeses desire, his life gets even more complicated. Friends are hard to identify. Soon, he’s only sure he can trust his cats and — possibly — those foulmouthed dolphins, who at least are honest in their dealings. Nobody ever said becoming a big-time bad guy would be easy. But reading about it in Starter Villain is a whole lot of fun.
Andrea M. Pawley lives and writes in Washington, DC, her favorite city in the whole world.