An undertaker and a zombie hunter in a steampunk/western fantasy realm is probably the least expected way to adapt The Shop Around The Corner (which is more famous in another adaptation, You’ve Got Mail). At times, the story forces itself to adhere too closely to the source material, and these stretches are unfortunately predictable. However, all of the original parts of The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy are a great success.
Mercy Birdsall is running the funeral home Birdsall and Son for her ill father while awaiting the return of her brother. The funeral home is near Tanria, a wild, magic-infused territory where, if someone dies, their spirit wanders and tries to take over other bodies. Marshal Hart Ralston’s job is to capture these spirits before they can harm people, and to return the original bodies to whichever funeral home they registered with. When that brings him to Mercy, sparks fly.
So where, you might ask, is You’ve Got Mail? Well, Hart, lonely and depressed, writes a letter to nobody as a form of self-expression, and it’s accidentally delivered by a magical mail creature to none other than Mercy. Mercy writes back. The correspondence blossoms as both characters work through personal challenges and a professional threat against Mercy’s business. Mercy proposes that the still-anonymous pen pals meet up; Hart arrives and finds out that his friend is his enemy.
And boy, this scene is full-on lifted from its predecessors.
The Shop Around the Corner:
Friend: If you don’t like Miss Novak, I can tell you, you won’t like that girl.
Friend: Because it is Miss Novak.
You’ve Got Mail:
Friend: Well… if you don’t like Kathleen Kelly, I can tell you right now… you’re not going to like this girl.
Friend: Because it *is* Kathleen Kelly.
Friend: Well, if you don’t find Mercy Birdsall attractive, you’re not going to this lady.
Friend: Yeah. Because she is Mercy Birdsall.
Please note that I’m not calling this plagiarism. The Shop Around The Corner is public domain in the United States. My concern is that hewing so closely to the original plot points does two things: makes the story too predictable if you already know it, and forces the characters to do what the original ones do even if these characters are not the same as their inspirations. I saw predictability when, for example, I knew exactly how the meet-up was going to go wrong. Forced character actions include refusing to let Hart undo the Big Mis of his pen pal identity because – well, because that’s how this story goes, not because it suited him and Mercy. This is especially problematic because, unlike in other versions, Hart and Mercy are actually having sex without him having made his confession, which made him feel manipulative.
I wish that the author had written this as a wildly out-there You’ve Got Mail fanfic, and then gone back and said ‘What of this do I really have to keep?’ When Amy Heckerling made Clueless, she realized the Frank and Jane Churchill subplot didn’t do anything for her setting, so she made Christian, Frank’s analogue, gay. I wish Undertaking had simply not gone for the meetup, or flipped the scene and let Mercy realize who Hart was, or made the meetup actually fail – something to make it true to the characters as she has adapted them, and less predictable to readers who know the story.
And the author could definitely have pulled it off! Her handling of the threatened-business plot point is deft and original. Mercy’s funeral home, with its boutique and personal service, is threatened by the predatory business practices of a chain funeral parlor. This allows the author to show, not just tell, that Mercy is truly called to her profession, to honor the dead and comfort the living. We also see Mercy’s resourcefulness, and there’s plot tension as she puzzles out what motivates the chain to come after her business and how she can stay afloat when they interfere. It’s a perfect example of keeping what works but adding originality, not simply transcribing a story I’ve already read.
Hart is also a well-developed character with strong ties to his profession and complex motivations. See, Hart is the son of a god, although he doesn’t know which one. As a half-god, he doesn’t know if he will or won’t be immortal himself. So it’s not just the pain of the terrible losses he has suffered (his mother, a father-figure marshal, and his beloved dog) which cause him to avoid relationships. It’s also the fact that if he’s immortal, he’s looking at an eternity of loss. Watching him struggle against becoming a mentor to Penrose Duckers, Hart’s ‘sidekick’ marshal-in-training, is emotionally important (and often hilarious) because it shows him opening up to more than Mercy. It’s so nice to see a book where it isn’t solely up to the heroine to teach the hero to form human connections.
And the setting! The magical wild-west vibe of the town is unique, and the magic world of the humans, gods, and animated dead is developed with depth and authenticity. Religion, too, is developed, in prayers, in the rituals of Mercy’s preparations of the dead, and in Hart’s family history.
Overall, I think it’s great that people can create vibrant new intellectual property from old characters and frameworks. The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy was a strong read, with an excellent setting and generally strong characters. It needed, however, to go a little bit farther from its roots to reach its full potential.
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