Fiction Reviews

Dead Man in a Ditch

(2020) Luke Arnold, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 417pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51292-1


The name’s Fetch Phillips — what do you need? Cover a Gnome with a crossbow while he does a dodgy deal? Sure. Find out who killed Lance Niles, the big-shot businessman who just arrived in town? I’ll give it shot. Help an old-lady Elf track down her husband’s murderer? That’s right up my alley. What I don’t do, because it’s impossible, is search for a way to bring the goddamn magic back. Rumours got out about what happened with the Professor, so now people keep asking me to fix the world. But there’s no magic in this story. Just dead friends, twisted miracles, and a secret machine made to deliver a single shot of murder.’

It’s not often, at least in my world, that the paperback editions of the books I read feature a picture of the author on the back, but this one does, showing a long-haired, moustached and slightly bearded, Luke Arnold. That might because Arnold is probably better known as an actor, playing Long John Silver in Black Sails and portraying former INXS singer, Michael Hutchence. I’ve not caught him in either of those roles, but at least I know what he looks like now.

Dead Man in a Ditch is the second in Arnold’s Fetch Phillips Archive, following on from the events detailed in The Last Smile in Sunder City and featuring the exploits of Fetch Phillips, former soldier and now Private Investigator with a very special clientele as he only takes cases from magical creatures, mainly out of guilt because he was one of the humans who severed the link with the magical world and brought the world of magic to its knees. Ever since then Fetch has had a huge chip on his shoulder, deep-fried in self-loathing and regret at his actions. Eight years ago he helped to block the flow of magic into the world, which severed the connection between the magical creatures who existed here and their own realm, leaving the world a worse place and all the magical creatures a shadow of themselves. Apart from the impact of magical beasties, Fetch’s action also impacted on the industries and the power source of the city which were linked to magic and are no longer able to tap into that magical source. Almost out of penance, Fetch works only with those he harmed, which doesn’t make him popular, especially with the police who regularly beat him up. Fetch gets beaten up a lot, but such is the way of the hard-boiled detective with Arnold harking back to the days of film noir and the works of Hammett and Chandler. He makes enough to get by, but given his connections and past history, he gets an unofficial case from Detective Simms as there has been a murder, where the victim is one Lance Niles who has made a splash in Sunder City by buying up a lot of property, but now he has been found dead in The Bluebird Lounge, a club for humans only, no magical creatures allowed. It seems an impossible murder because it involves magic, but magic doesn’t exist anymore, or does it? Can it? Thus Fetch takes on a case that seems separate from all the other cases he is investigating, but slowly they begin to intertwine into something bigger, more complicated and more deadly. As with the best hard-boiled detective stories, particularly the Lew Archer stories by Ross MacDonald, it's sometimes better if you had never taken the case.

At just over 400 pages with a prologue and 82 chapters, Dead Man in a Ditch should be a pacey read, except it doesn’t seem like that because of a couple of things – first, we do get over-burdened with the burden that Fetch is carrying. He isn’t that likeable a character and often dives in when he shouldn’t, and there is a heck of a lot of interiority going on when he mulls over what he has done to the world. It also doesn’t help that there is another burden he is starting to bear as a rumour is starting that magic might be coming back into the world, and he might be the person to make it happen, just the sort of expectation and pressure he doesn’t need. Another problem is the pacing and the flow between the action, introspection and also the amount of info-dumping we get which interrupts the narrative. I’ve never believed in the old adage “show, don’t tell” because writers tell all the time, but there was maybe too much telling going on here.

Fans of the first book will certainly enjoy this one, and while Arnold is getting compared to Aaronovitch and Butcher in the urban fantasy stakes, what he is offering is different, darker, and unique, and no bad thing for all that.

Ian Hunter


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