Cover image for Damned if you do
Damned if you do
Houghton, Gordon.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Picador USA, 2000.

Physical Description:
301 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
Originally published under the title The apprentice: London : Anchor, 1999.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Hades is dead and the Agency needs a replacement, a new apprentice to carry on its good work. After a vote, corpse number 72 18 9 11 12 13 49 is selected and promptly yanked from his grave, to serve a seven day trial sentence. Each day our hapless narrator is to assist Death in the killing of one unfortunate soul, but as he encounters each victim, and as he begins to grasp the functions of Death and the other three modern-day Horsemen, he begins to unlock strange memories of his own prior life. It is not until he understands the backhanded politics of the Four Horsemen's run-down row house, and the sinister circumstances of his predecessor's demise, that he can recognize his true purpose in, well, er, life...

Author Notes

Gordon Houghton attended Oxford University and currently lives in England. He is also the author of the novel, The Dinner Party . Dammed If You Do is his first book to be published in America.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Demonstrating a comic style reminiscent of both Nick Hornby and Monty Python, Houghton's novel is a funny, if sometimes sophomoric, look at death in all of its absurd forms. In an Oxford cemetery, the unnamed male narrator, who recently died at age 28, awakes from his eternal rest and discovers that he has been randomly selected to be Death's assistant for a week. Each day, the narrator accompanies Death around town on assignments. Poisoned chocolates, ravenous ants, a ludicrous chain of clumsy accidents--each of the seven days explores a new manner of kicking off. These events are interwoven with the narrator's memories of his own final days of life, when he worked as a somewhat hapless private investigator. Much of the novel's humor resides in the interplay among Death and the other three apocalyptic horsemen, War, Pestilence, and Famine, a quarrelsome, disorganized bunch. When the death gags start to die down about halfway through, Houghton wisely breathes life into a suspenseful subplot, as the narrator's apprenticeship nears its close. --James Klise

Publisher's Weekly Review

Death isn't all it's cracked up to be in Houghton's very British novel. In fact, Death is a haggard and disillusioned bureaucrat, who has long ago stopped pondering the chief's ultimate vision even as he goes about his grisly business: pushing a depressed woman off a building, setting army ants on innocent lovers and dismembering the passenger of a carnival ride in a bizarre accident. Along with his companions, War, Famine and Pestilence, the paper-pushing grim reaper rents office space in Oxford, England. The four employ a general assistant, the punky, ambitious Skirmish, but Death's personal assistant has just been eviscerated, so Death resurrects a deceased private detective to take his place. The novel is told from this unnamed zombie's point of view. As the zombie assists Death on his rounds, he has to get reacquainted with mobility, digestion and excretion. He's in rather good shape, actually, save for a missing penis and a particularly scrawny physique. Over the course of his week with Death, he copes with memories of his former life, many of them centering on Amy, the love of his life, who married someone else. Only after he became a private investigator did they meet again, when, coincidentally, Amy asked him to run an investigation on her abusive husband. In between dealing out plague-infected chocolates and looking up files, the zombie finally remembers the manner of his death. At the end of the week, Death discharges him, which usually means a return to corpsehood. But then the zombie challenges him to a game of chess. Houghton's dark riffs are amusing, but the novel's big extended joke gets a little tired before the end. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One It could be you Hades was dead -- no doubt about it -- and he wasn't coming back this side of the Last Judgement. They found his body one bright Sunday morning in July, lying face-down in a thicket by the river. His Agency badge was missing. His face was unrecognizable. He had been eviscerated.     No-one could agree how it happened. Death blamed War, of course; and War openly accused Pestilence. Pestilence, for his part, secretly suspected Famine -- and Famine believed the other three were engaged in a conspiracy against him. An early-morning jogger, who witnessed the crime from behind a mulberry tree, and barely escaped with his life, swore that he saw three wild dogs crashing through the bushes and bounding back along the track towards town. Only one person knew the whole story, and he wasn't telling.     Whatever the truth, the fact remained -- Hades was dead, and the Agency needed a replacement. An emergency meeting was held, a resolution was passed, and the traditional method for selecting a new recruit was agreed upon. In the converted attic of a two-storey town house overlooking the meadow, the Unholy Tombola began: Pestilence emptied a bag of coloured balls into a revolving wooden drum, Famine turned the handle, and Death removed the balls and read out the numbers.     `Seventy-two ... Eighteen ... What's this -- a six?' He showed the ball to Famine, who tutted loudly.     `It's a nine .'     `Lucky bugger,' said War. He was slouched at the computer desk, typing in the numbers as they were announced, his manner increasingly irritable. `Looks like it's a `cking local. Just down the road.'     `Let's hope it's better than the last one,' Pestilence remarked.     `Couldn't be worse,' Famine concurred.     `Do you mind?' Death interrupted. `OK. Eleven ... Twelve ... Thirteen -- what are the chances of that?' Pestilence rolled his eyes and feigned a yawn; no-one else responded. `And finally, the bonus number ... Forty- nine .'     Everyone turned towards War, who entered the last number with a listless tap, then nodded and mumbled to himself as he scanned the on-screen information. `Right ... He's a Code Four male. Twenty-eight ...' He laughed. `Bloody typical -- no name, no family, and no friends ... Interesting case, though--'     `Just tell me where he's buried,' Death snapped.     War gave him his most apocalyptic glare, but spoke coolly. `St Giles cemetery.' He paused. `Has the Chief done you a contract?'     `Of course.'     `Have you got a spade ?' Pestilence sneered.     `Obviously.'     `Make sure you find the right grave,' Famine added, weakly.     Death smiled at him, like an indulgent uncle with a Sabatier hidden behind his back.