Christopher Buehlman’s novel The Suicide Motor Club melds vampire lore with vehicular obsession. In the narrative the vampires have hot wheels and, while the blood is the life, they also get their kicks on Route 66. As Bram Stoker famously quoted from the 1773 poem “Lenore”: “The dead travel fast.” In addition to the thrill of high speed driving, Buehlman’s undead wild bunch indulges in sadistic torture of their prey. Protagonist Judith Lamb becomes a victim of the sanguinary sadism when her young son is abducted from the car her husband is driving. Although Judith survives the subsequent choreographed crash, she is emotionally altered and aware that the orchestrators of the kidnapping are not human. The way her character transitions propels the plot and makes it soar. When she becomes a novice nun she thinks she’s found sanctuary, but old habits die hard; this sharp-shooting still angry gal goes into full vendetta mode at the time of reckoning.
Judith’s highly unsavory adversaries are the target of an assemblage known as “The Bereaved.” In courting Judith for recruitment in the thus far males only organization, a representative named Phillip Wicklow explains what they are up against: “the Suicide Motor Club, a group of murderers who roam the country abducting women and children, provoking lethal automobile accidents and literally feeding on the blood of their victims. These killers have themselves already died a bodily death and risen from this death to live again unnaturally.” Judith is coveted as a recruit because the depth of her loss will fuel her resolve. She also possesses certain psychic abilities that could prove useful. Plus, the nun garb and accoutrements of her faith are viewed as potential weaponry. Her cogent reasoning about logistics and ability as a crack shot, however, are dismissed due to gender bias. The enthusiastic, but not well prepared, men don’t have a prayer.
While decent characterization is applied to the guys who go into battle with Judith, author Buehlman expends more effort on amplifying the unique personality traits of the crazy vampire road warriors. Their alpha, Luther Nixon, unites them in escalating acts of bravado. Accompanying the undead on the road is Woods, the so-called “day bitch.” Woods is equal in loathsomeness to those he serves. Instead of the insects or rats bestowed on Dracula’s Renfield, Woods is given dead humans. Like any self indulgent practitioner of necrophilia, he thoroughly loves what he does.
The gusto with which the vampires commit horrible outrageous acts is palatable. Yet, it’s the complexity of Judith that is the book’s true achievement. She has a marvelous exchange with a psychiatrist that displays her shrewd sardonic wit, and an aptitude to calculate deportment to finesse a situation. There’s also a bizarre sexual minuet between Judith and a relatively benign vampire who, with the wisdom of centuries, knows how to play his psychological cards with panache. Both he and Judith offer each other eternal life; he as what he knows it to be, she submitting what her religion indicates. Their dance of death (and beyond) is utterly enticing. Judith is saint, reluctant seductress, and kickass heroine. The phrase “What a woman!” doesn’t suffice.
The Suicide Motor Club, published by Berkley Books, is set in the late 1960s: a time of turbulence, change, and no seat belt requirements. Means of communication seem antiquated, and that suits the story just fine. At the tale’s end Judith has divested herself of certain things, and stands ready to tackle what lies ahead. Someone has betrayed her, and that doesn’t set well with a person of her disposition. Based on this novel, Christopher Buehlman has completely hooked the reader and is guaranteed interest in the sequel. Damn him and bless him.