Jason Ridler has structured his novel Death Match, a murder mystery set in the carnival-like world of professional wrestling, much like an episode of World Wrestling Entertainment’s Raw or Smackdown television shows: there are moments of comedy, moments of drama, moments that go way over the top with cartoon ridiculousness, and moments that feel completely genuine and have real impact. It’s a difficult juggling act, and Ridler isn’t always successful at keeping all the balls in the air, but overall Death Match is a fun and engaging read.
In the book’s opening pages we meet Spar Battersea, a former punk rocker with self-destructive tendencies. Spar’s roommate is Ray Kingston, who wrestles in the local circuit as “Clown Royale.” Spar, one year sober and counting, is at the show to support his roomie, but he’s spending most of his time trying to avoid the alcoholic temptations that surround him and ruminating on his own failures. Until, that is, something happens to shake him out of his self-absorption – his friend Ray dies in the ring.
Ray’s death, and the circumstances that pile up around it, finally give Spar some purpose, even if for just a few days: he sets out to solve the mystery of how a young, athletic man could die of an apparent heart attack while still in his prime. Spar’s search for the truth carries him through a variety of seedy undergrounds that populate their little town, and it’s here where you first get the sense that Ridler is trying to throw a lot – perhaps a little too much – at Spar and, by extension, at the readers, as Spar’s ham-fisted “investigation” takes him behind the curtain at wrestling shows, backstage at the local punk rock scene, and into the even deeper shadows of biker gangs and twisted sex merchants.
Ridler is a former punk rocker himself and a big wrestling fan, and he brings a lot of that insider knowledge into play in Death Match, giving those sections a realistic sheen over all of the madness. He’s also an established writer, having published over 40 short stories and plenty of non-fiction articles and essays in various print and Internet markets. This is his first novel, however, and it shows in some places. You can sense that Ridler is still looking for his long-form voice, and that maybe he tried to do a little too much the first time out. The prose is entertaining and fast-paced, but there are some inconsistencies that trip you up here and there – places where characters repeat the same information as if they’d never said it before, or places where they say one thing and totally contradict themselves a page or so later. There’s also a lot that happens by coincidence, like when Spar’s investigation leads him to a bar where his former band, the Knuckledusters, are playing for a record executive. A fight breaks out, costing the band their shot at a deal – which is the exact same reason the band kicked Spar out a year earlier, when his behavior cost them their first shot at fame.
These issues aside, Death Match is really a fun read. It’s a chaotic mix of colorful characters and bone-crunching violence, and there’s a lot of promise there for the future adventures of Spar Battersea that Ridler promises are on the way. Overall, Death Match is an entertaining if uneven debut novel that fans of pro wrestling, punk rock and bare-knuckle action stories can all enjoy.