Reviewing the Voyager Digital Firsts: Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf
As long-time readers of my blog will know, my novel Darkhaven was picked up in an open door period held by Harper Voyager to find books for their new digital first programme. The UK branch acquired 15 novels altogether, the last of which was released earlier this month, so now seems like the perfect time to take a look at some of my fellow authors’ books.
Full disclosure: though I’ve never met any of my digital colleagues, I have connected with most of them online. It’s probably fair to say that I’m unlikely to rip their books apart, and that I’ll focus on the positives. Having said that, I am going to be honest, else there’d be no point writing these reviews at all. So I guess what I’m saying is that what you’re about to read is as reliable, or unreliable, as any other review you’ll come across :-)
I’ll be reviewing the books in order of publication, because it’s as good an order as any, so first up: Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf by Terry Newman.
Did you ever wonder what happened in Middle Earth after the end of The Lord of the Rings?
The setting of Terry Newman’s Detective Strongoak is what you’d get if you returned to Tolkien’s famous world many hundreds of years later: an industrialised city in which men, elves, dwarfs, hobbits (gnomes), orcs (goblins) and Ents (Tree-friends) are all living cheek by jowl and getting along … much as you’d expect, really. Old prejudices linger, some of the races have fared better than others over the years, but everyone is more or less happy as long as nothing happens to disturb the uneasy peace.
Which, of course, is exactly what does happen. An elf is murdered, a precious gem goes missing, and it’s up to our protagonist Nicely Strongoak to solve the crime before the general unrest in the city can erupt into something worse – and before he himself can be framed for it.
The way that Newman uses The Lord of the Rings as ancient history in this book is a delight. It’s never overt, presumably because of rights restrictions – the avoidance of the terms ‘hobbit’, ‘orc’ and ‘Ent’ probably told you that already. But I really enjoyed the little turns of phrase that are shown to have entered the language: ‘the full fellowship’, to mean the whole lot; ‘wraithed’, as a slang term for killed; ‘barrel-riders’ for joyriders. You could probably spend hours picking out all the references of this kind that are woven through the text. And if that’s not enough for you, then stick around for long enough and you may find a familiar character making an appearance …
On top of this entertaining bedrock, Newman builds a plot that’s straight out of a classic noir detective novel, with a protagonist to suit. Master Detective Nicely Strongoak is a wise-cracking, sharply dressed tough guy with a keen eye for the ladies. Apart from the fact that he’s a dwarf, he could have been created by Raymond Chandler. And indeed, with its racehorses and fabulously expensive gemstones, so could the plot. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never been a particular fan of detective noir, played straight – especially its tendency to reduce female characters to a handful of tropes (the femme fatale, the wholesome girl-next-door). And yes, Detective Strongoak’s women are very much in this mould. But the whole thing is done with such a knowing tone that it’s hard to mind. Though the book deliberately wears all the trappings of 40s noir, it does so with a modern wink to the camera.
One way of doing this, of course, is through humour. Though it has plenty of action in places – and though it touches on serious topics, including evolution, racial harmony and the nature of democracy – the book never takes itself too seriously. Newman has an impressive history as a comedy writer, and it shows; his turn of phrase is almost Pratchettian in places. ‘I didn’t hear the swish of the mace until the briefest of moments before it took me with it into the dark that has no name. It’s like the dark that has got a name, but it was rotten to its parents and they disowned it completely, which has made it a whole lot meaner.’ There’s the spirit of Sir Terry in there somewhere. Add to that the fact that Nicely himself is armed with more wisecracks and one-liners than any mere human could possibly use in a lifetime, and there’s a lot of fun to be had.
As befits its noirish influences, the plot itself is as convoluted as it gets – more kinks than a chainmail corkscrew, as Nicely himself would say – and I can’t claim to have followed every single twist and turn along the way. (I am, after all, not a Master Detective.) But there are enough enjoyable set pieces – I particularly liked finding out what happened to all the kings, and the interlude with the surprisingly miniature dragon – and enough entertaining characters that I really don’t think it matters if you can’t always keep up. Just go along for the ride, and try not to end up with an axe in your head.
In all, the whole thing adds up to a book with a very distinctive style of its own: one that, I must admit, took me a few chapters to settle to. Yet once I’d entered into the spirit of the thing, I found Detective Strongoak to be an amusing, inventive and different fantasy read, and I’d certainly be interested in finding out what Nicely gets up to next.
Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf is available to buy in ebook and paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon US.
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