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Dead Man in a Ditch (Fetch Phillips, 2)
Orbit, 24 September 2020
Available as: e, audio, TPB, 416pp
Source: advance PB copy
I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Dead Man in a Ditch.
Fetch Phillips, soiled hero of Last Smile in Sunder City, is back for another bout of wrestling with guilt and of attempting, somehow, to atone.
This may be a fantasy world, replete with (formerly) magical creatures, but Fetch, a Man for Hire, is noir to the core and wears the hardscrabble Sunder City like a ratty old trench coat. It is him, and he is it. From his shabby office to the women who come - trailing clouds of danger - for help, to the mean streets themselves, Arnold's command of the atmosphere of noir is pitch perfect, as this novel gets underway with a desperate woman whose husband has vanished, a gambling den and brushes with a police force desperate for results when a wealthy financier is murdered.
Of course, as readers of the first book will know, there's a whole other layer of darkness and guilt underlying Fetch's cynicism. This is a world from which the magic has fled, and it fled with Fetch's boot on its backside. All the beauty, all the power, all the wonder of a whole magical world is gone, and it was (largely) his fault. The survivors of that remember, and he would do anything, anything to atone. But there's nothing to be done. So Fetch sits in his office and opens the whisky bottle.
Now, though, there are rumours that the magic is returning. A particularly horrible murder has been committed in a way that can only be magical and, against his better judgement, Fetch is drawn into the investigation...
I liked and enjoyed this book. In fact I actually enjoyed it more so than its predecessor, because - while there is the odd flashback to Fetch's earlier life, to establish what he had done and why - most of it takes place in the present, which I feel gives Dead Man in a Ditch greater focus and pace. Bigger issues are also at stake here. Sunder City was ruined in the Coda, when the magic died, as it depended on underground magical fires for power, so the ill effects of that event spread to the human world as well. Ever since then, Sunder has shivered, lacking heat, light and industry.
Now, a new energy has come to town in the person of go-ahead Thurston Niles with his modern business methods and smart, grey-suited goons. Maybe this is what's needed to help Fetch's world move forward? The story therefore sees him caught between his regrets at the passing of the old world, his desire to cling on to what he has salvaged, and the need to find a way to better his city for the sake of all those shivering, starving humans (not to mention shivering, starving dwarves, gnomes, fairies, elves and the rest).
So we see Fetch conflicted, guilt and regret driving him one way, hope and logic another. He isn't helped when a figure from his past appears: that should have made things simpler but Fetch is too honest to trust simple - he's more likely to take it down an alleyway and try to beat the truth out of it. His sense of self-loathing dovetails neatly with that noirish framing, giving us a powerful sense of why he is so self-destructive, so gallant and yet so despairing.
Fetch is an engaging character, seemingly resigned to the continual hard knocks that being a Man for Hire in Sunder City guarantees (one wonders how much more he can take), seemingly sympathetic to the hatred that many in the magical community have for him, yet never - quite - surrendering to self-pity and - generally - trying to do the right thing. He outshines everyone else in this book, though, which is perhaps at times a pity - when he is verbally sparring with that face from the past, for example, it never quite feels like a contest of equals.
All in all a great read and one which ended just when it should, leaving me wanting to read the next book NOW and anticipating what catastrophe might hit Sunder next.
For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here.