Reading Paul Cornell’s first anthology of short stories for Bernice feels slightly strange, and now that ten series have passed and the characters have developed it presents a very raw and unexploited origin of the Braxiatel Collection. In one respect it’s a very competent selection, but in another it feels more like a showcase of intention and facts. It’s almost too obvious in the way it sets out to announce ‘This is Bernice Summerfield, this is how sarcastic yet serious she is, this is how she drinks and cavorts yet gets the job done when it matters’. Yet when we really got to know her almost none of it was relevant…
1: A Question of Identity
Nowhere is this more obvious that Caroline Symcox opening chapters, telling the story of Bernice attempting to force herself to be a posh, serious, academic only to realise that it really doesn’t suit her. Set on the collection it shows her, Braxiatel, and their collection in all too clear colours, although with not much depth applied anywhere else.
6 / 10
2: Steal From the World
Kate Orman is known for writing harrowing, emotional and physical trauma in her novels, and this story is a gruelling ordeal… In a good way. I’ve a feeling I’ve heard Bernice recount this story before, only in nowhere near as much lurid detail. It’s a fantastic piece, well written and paced, containing equal parts drama and tension.
8 / 10
3: The Light That Never Dies
Eddie Robson, who would later go on to write extremely well regarded short, generally independent, inventive stories, and eventually become producer of the range, offers an interesting offering that shows both Bernice and Brax facing an ethical dilemma regarding a very controversial video.
7 / 10
4: Heart of Glass
On first read-through I was slightly confused exactly what happens here. It feels like a set up for a much longer, and deeper story. Out negotiating with a faceless corporation Bernice has something rather important stolen from her. Very well written but also deeply confusing.
6 / 10
5: The Monster and the Archeologist
After four stories that quickly introduce Bernice and her new home, this is the first story that shows her job and work life. Arriving to help a family of Gandagum archaeologists, she is pursued by the self important Professor Niwlog, determined to claim the treasure of her own. Fun, engaging and brief.
7 / 10
6: Step Back in Time
Matt Jones showcases Bernice’s currently single state of affairs, by recounting a brief dalliance with Porl, a troubled and very attractive alien with a secret. Star of the show is her gay friend Anderson, and an interesting question about second chances. Of the stories set entirely on the collection this is probably the best and most interesting.
7 / 10
7: Christmas Spirit
Christmas time comes to the collection, quickly followed by a funeral for one of Bernice’s students. At the funeral one of the young man’s friends suffers a mental breakdown, and Bernice investigates to find out exactly what is going on. After a promising start though it devolves into a fairly standard ghost story.
6 / 10
8: The Door into Bedlam
After seven stories which resolutely centre around Bernice Summerfield, it’s good to have a story that shares the limelight with someone else, and the highlight of this story is definitely Jason’s trip through Hell. Dave Stone’s imagination has come up with something both dark, creative and revealing, it’s an important story laying down threads that will hopefully be picked up later.
7 / 10
9: The Least Important Man
Definitely the highlight of the collection. By now you should be familiar with Steven Moffat’s script writing, but this is the first time I’ve seen any literature and all I can say is it’s a shame there isn’t much more of it. Again Bernice doesn’t take centre stage, and instead Gavin Oliver Scott, a completely normal, slightly nerdy, lovestruck boy is introduced and this is his story.
9 / 10
10: Digging Up the Past
In order to gain more publicity for the collection Braxiatel introduces Bernice to a very potentially hazardous PR contract for her own TV show. A fairly simple end to the anthology with an amusing ending.
6 / 10
As a Whole:
The Dead Men Diaries is intended as a semi-autobiographical novel, showing highlights of key moments in Bernice’s recent life. It shamelessly showboats the character and the setting, which is fair enough as it was intended to introduce new readers to Bernice. However, apart from Bernice herself, of the other regulars, only Braxiatel and Jason are shown in any kind of detail, and even Braxiatel has very little to show for himself. Every writer seems to create their own character to play with, which succeeds in creating a small community, but no one reappears with enough depth. It’s a shame, most of the novels highlights feature characters other than Bernice who we probably won’t see again.
It’s a fairly competent collection of stories, and a good introduction to the ‘character’ of Bernice Summerfield and the ‘concept’ of the collection and the kind of stories that can be had on it. Let’s just hope for slightly more depth next time, now the foundations are laid, and they are solid if not stellar.
6 / 10