A book’s title is extremely important. Some don’t make sense till after you read it. And then there are titles like Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf, which tells you exactly what you’re getting: Raymond Chandler meets J.R.R. Tolkien. Or maybe more like Dashiell Hammett meets Terry Pratchett.
A mashup like this could be played straight (Alex Bledsoe does this well in his Eddie LaCrosse series), but Terry Newman really plays up the comedic potential. And it is a very funny book, even if the humor is occasionally a bit dark. He wrote a blog post explaining the appeal of the book with a Venn diagram, and it’s pretty accurate: fantasy + comedy + detective, aka “three of my favorite things.”
Where Bledsoe leans harder into the “medieval” part of “medieval fantasy,” Newman pushes the fantasy element, with steampunk technology which makes the setting feel more like a 1940s version of Middle Earth. Neither is better or worse, it’s just two different approaches to this particular mashup of styles.
Our protagonist, Nicely Strongoak, is your typical hard boiled private investigator, except he’s a dwarf. The character reminded me strongly of Varric from Bioware’s Dragon Age games; snarky, self-deprecating and easy to underestimate. I really enjoyed his character voice, and the book is presented in first person, which felt like the voice-over from classic film noir (or Jessica Jones, which borrows heavily from noir.)
The plot is a traditional murder mystery (what? the “Dead Elf” in the title didn’t give that away?) with a clear ending and no cliffhangers. You might finish the book wanting to follow Nicely on his next case – I definitely did – and there are a few threads that could eventually grow into a bigger overarching plot. But the fantasy side of the book appears to fall solidly into the sword and sorcery subgenre.
Which, to my mind, makes much more sense than going the epic fantasy route. Both sword and sorcery and detective fiction are intrinsically episodic genres; they fit well together. The serialized nature of epic fantasy means each new entry has to raise the stakes and the scale of the story. I don’t think that meshes nearly as well with a detective mystery.
In contrast, Patrick Weekes “Rogues of the Republic” series mashes up the heist genre with epic fantasy. This works, again, because both genres have that element of escalation. Each successive caper in a heist series has to get bigger and more impossible, and that works perfectly with epic fantasy.
I personally enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone who likes funny fantasy and a good mystery novel. Also, the eBook is only $2.99, which in my opinion is a great deal on some fun escapist fiction.