Jay Caspian Kang, The Dead Do Not Improve
An incisively witty portrait of the Bay Area through a murder mystery lens
In The Dead Do Not Improve, author Jay Caspian Kang describes the travails of four Bay Area residents who try to uncover the story behind a murder. Phillip Kim, a dour MFA graduate, and Ellen, his blue-blooded neighbor, live on the block where aging hippie Dolores Stone was killed. While Phillip and Ellen wander uneasily around the city, detectives Sid Finch and Jim Kim work on the case. The two approach their work with completely different attitudes: Finch is detached, while Kim is sarcastic and aggressive. As the story moves along, the four main characters find themselves in increasing amounts of danger.
Kang infuses his novel with acerbic humor, which makes his prose all the more engaging. His characters often have agitated, hilarious conversations about sex and race, particularly as it applies to Korean-Americans. Kang also derives comedy from the Bay Area itself; he writes detailed, unflattering portraits of Bay Area residents that cumulatively seem affectionate, somehow. After people-watching at a music festival, Phillip remarks that he “spent the rest of the night feeling superior to the entire state of California.”
The novel’s fast pace can sometimes work against it. It can be hard to keep the minor characters’ names straight, particularly in the audiobook format. Still, the book leaves a lasting, positive impression with its unpretentious wit and incisiveness.