Totally Deceased (Sue H. Cunningham) – Book Review

Girls just want to have fun – and solve their own murders…

The premise of Totally Deceased (from debut novelist Sue H. Cunningham) is well-worn but still full of potential to mine: regular teenager Jess discovers she has a previously-undiagnosed heart condition necessitating a transplant. Said transplant, when it arrives, comes with an unexpected side effect – Jess can now see the spirit of her new heart’s previous owner, a spoilt yet well-meaning socialite named Tilly, who knows she was murdered and asks Jess for help in solving it.

This isn’t the first story to use this pairing in the whodunnit genre – whether that’s televisual offerings like Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) or even one of this year’s best British mysteries Grave Expectations by Alice Bell – but utilising this in the YA genre breathes fresh life into the conceit.

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The heart of Totally Deceased, pun very much intended, are its two leads and their prickly, combative, but ultimately warm and compassionate friendship. Jess is a little bland at book’s beginning, a common-sense-laden Northerner dealing with a lack of purpose and sparring, divorced parents. Tilly, on the other hand, is pulled straight off the Chelsea set, with millions waiting in a trust fund, and a pampered mindset she’s forced to reckon with once mortality sets in. Their sparring, fractious friendship is a joy to read as Cunningham gives them hilarious, distinct voices, and helps build a realistic bond between this particular odd couple.

When it comes to the actual mystery portion, things are a little less steady – the actual perpetrator is revealed fairly early on, leading into a pursuit of true goals and motivations that feels a little ill-defined and nebulous. While it does lead into a diverting distraction or two, it does mean that the actual gathering of clues, evidence, and suspects that a reader might come to expect from a YA mystery, feels a little light, closer to a cosy mystery-style of whodunnit. Fortunately though this all ties together nicely in one of the loveliest, most affecting endings this year that is all the more satisfying in the way a reader can see it coming.

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While the actual mystery that propels Totally Deceased is neither the most complicated nor the most compelling, its true, beating, pre-loved heart lies with its central odd couple. Cunningham’s debut is warm and hilarious, a sincere love letter to unlikely friendships and a funny, light-hearted mystery to boot.

Totally Deceased is out now from Scholastic.

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