The novellas deals with a world, where Resurrective Immortality has existed for about a decade now, even though no one knows how or why. The only thing that is known is that anyone (well, almost anyone) who is intentionally killed by another person vanishes in a puff of air and reappears in their home, naked but alive, their body restored to its state from several hours prior to the death. Anyone who dies of natural causes, suicide, or accidents is dead for good. This has resulted in the creation of government-sanctioned Dispatchers, whose job is to kill (or "dispatch" in their lingo) people near death (e.g., due to a failed hospital treatment) in order to give them another chance at life.
Tony Valdez is a licensed Dispatcher, who is content with his work killing people to save them. Then he is approached by a police detective, who explains that a colleague of his has been, apparently, kidnapped, which may be related to an off-the-books job he has done. Valdez, who is no stranger to the gray area of the Dispatching profession, tries to track down the other Dispatcher before he expires.
In 2020, Scalzi released a sequel titled Murder by Other Means, continuing the story of Tony Valdez. The sequel picks up two years after the first novella, with Tony hit by hard times thanks to budget cuts by the city of Chicago, with many of his regular gigs drying up. Tony does an off-the-books job for some quick cash and goes to deposit the money to his bank when the bank is robbed.
The novella contains examples of the following tropes:
- Ate His Gun: Upon being discovered, the Big Bad chooses to kill himself rather than face prosecution for kidnapping and attempted murder by starvation. Also, due to this trope, The Mafia typically stage killings in this manner in order to avoid any unnecessary questions, should the "dispatch" fail, since then it just looks like a suicide. At the end, it's revealed that the woman the other Dispatcher "failed to properly dispatch" had, in fact, privately asked him to let her push the trigger button on the app herself in order to end her suffering.
- Bank Robbery: Early in the second book, Tony witnesses a bank robbery by four masked men. One of them recognizes him and calls him by name. When the cops show up, the robbers have one of them shoot the other three in the head as part of their escape plan before committing Suicide by Cop. Three of the four bodies disappear moments later, but one remains dead, specifically the one who recognized Tony. Tony eventually learns that the robbery was staged in order to get access to bank records and mess up a business deal.
- Denied Food as Punishment: If The Mafia wants to kill someone, they'll be tied up and left in a secluded location for days with no food or water. Eventually, the person dies. Since this counts as murder, the person comes back... but still near death, typically beyond even modern medicine's capabilities for recovery (if he or she even has the strength to reach a phone and call 911, that is). The next death is considered natural, so no resurrection occurs.
- Dice: Valdez carries a set of three ten-sided dice in order to explain his job to others. They are used to illustrate the odds of a failed "dispatch" (1 in 1000).
- Driven to Suicide: In the second novella, the bad guys use blackmail and threats of torture against their loved ones to force a number of people to commit suicide, thereby dying for good. The list includes a bank manager (stepped in front of a train), a cop (shot himself), Tony's downstairs neighbor (burned down the apartment building with the bad guys' goal of killing Tony), and a translator (jumped off a roof, although Tony saved him). This, naturally, arouses interest from the police, who find the string of suicides suspicious. During the climax, Tony is the one who turns the tables on the lawyer Barnes, explaining that his life is pretty much over as his conspiracy has been unraveled by the Chicago police and all manner of federal agencies. He picks up the gun he was previously trying to get Tony to use on himself and pulls the trigger, but the gun clicks on empty, as Tony has secretly removed the only bullet, unwilling to let the bastard get off so easily.
- Duels Decide Everything: Sword duels have become common over the past decade thanks to Resurrective Immortality, typically among dumb college kids with rich parents. They usually employ a Dispatcher, paying him in cash, to kill a seriously wounded duelist... or a second, who has gotten too close... or an arbiter, who said something one of the duelists didn't like.
- Erotic Asphyxiation: Clubs like this have become more popular in this world. They prefer to hire dispatchers in order to kill someone who has gone too far, especially if that person has done it himself, which would constitute as suicide otherwise. Tony is firmly against these type of gigs.
- Fight Clubbing: Underground fight organizers like to hire a Dispatcher under the table. Even victorious fighters end the night severely injured, and going to the hospital would reveal the existence of the fights, so the fights end with a Dispatcher killing everyone so they come back uninjured and ready for the next fight night. (Valdez comments that most of these organizers used to run dog fights, until Resurrective Immortality made human versus human fights more profitable.)
- Infodump: Valdez does this at the beginning, when explaining his job to a police detective, someone who already ought to know about Resurrective Immortality, since, you know, it's been a thing for about ten years.
- Interrupted Suicide: In the second novella, Chen tries to jump off the roof of a highrise, as the bad guys are threatening to torture his fiancée. Thinking fast, Tony rushes to him and gives him a shove as he's beginning to fall. The shove ends up counting as murder, thus allowing Chen to come back from the dead.
- Loophole Abuse: The dispatchers' job depends on this. Resurrective Immortality doesn't work on people who die as a result of accident, or botched medical treatmentonly murder. If someone is about to die as a result of a cause other than murder, it's the dispatcher's job to step in and murder them first.
- The Mafia: At one point, Valdez is "invited" to come with a bunch of shady characters in a limo at the point of a gun. After meeting their boss, he is told that the guy has spent a lot of effort in moving away from his company's less than legal origins and is trying to go fully legit. However, some habits are hard to lose, such as kidnapping people at gunpoint and taking them to a construction site for a talk. Also, since they don't want him to be seen leaving the site, they drop him down an elevator shaft, thus giving him a quick trip home.
- Professional Killer: An interesting variation. Dispatchers are licensed professionals, whose job involves "dispatching" people, who are about to die, in order for them to be resurrected. Typically, they use a special tool that injects a tiny explosive device into the brain, which can be then detonated either directly through the tool or remotely with a phone app. This ensures immediately brain death. The novella begins with Tony Valdez being present at a heart surgery, where the doctor is unable to save the patient, forcing Tony to step in and do his job. Otherwise, the patient would have died permanently, since the surgeon wouldn't be considered his killer by whatever force performs these resurrections. All police are required to surrender their sidearms to Dispatchers upon request, if an emergency "dispatch" has to be performed and no tool is available. All Dispatchers are trained to shoot targets in the head in such a manner as to ensure immediate brain death. Also, most surgeons hate having Dispatchers present when they're working, since they believe that it's an insult to their skills. However, HMOs demand that a Dispatcher be on hand during high-risk surgeries, so hospitals don't have a choice.
- Resurrective Immortality: Anyone who is killed by another person has a 999 out of 1000 chance of coming back to life, with their body restored to its status a few hours before death. Why? How? No one knows. But it works. This doesn't apply to suicide, natural causes, and no-fault accidents, though. The resurrected people reappear naked in their homes (actually, in a place they feel safe, which is typically their homes, unless they don't feel safe at home). Oh, and they remember everything up to the point of brain death, including the pain of said death.