Dead Man in a Ditch

Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Following on from The Last Smile In Sunder City, private detective Fetch Phillips continues to navigate the turbulent post-magical era known as ‘the Coda’. This time he must make sense of a brazen murder in a human-only bar that can only have been inflicted by supposedly impossible means – a point-blank fireball to the face.

The Last Smile had an instantly likeable style, cribbing from Terry Pratchett and Raymond Chandler, but transcending pastiche. Occasionally it laboured its scene-setting and backstory enough that the pace dragged – probably a common pitfall in fantasy debuts. Arnold has no such problem here. Even as he reveals dozens of imaginative new locations and characters, and ties up many of the most intriguing loose ends from the first book, he keeps the action going at a confident, rapid clip.

We got to know the squalid, sprawling Sunder City pretty well in the first book, but a flurry of new cases takes Fetch into surprising new corners of town, including the daunting gambling district The Sickle, a defunct ceramics factory and a swanky hat shop. Fetch even finds himself travelling beyond city limits for the first time, leading to enjoyable widescreen glimpses of the greater Archetellos continent.

Without giving away the elaborate final third of the book, there’s nothing timid about Arnold’s plotting – no sense that he wants to tidy up and simply reset the stage for another stock mystery next time around. When we visit Sunder City again, it may be a very different place, but still home to the lovably glum ‘man for fire’ Fetch – and still a delight to spend time in.

The Last Smile in Sunder City

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

A detective yarn set in an irresistible once-magical world, where the various species – Banshees, Wizards, Elves, Werewolves, and so on – are still adjusting to the abrupt extinction of the supernatural force that sustained almost everything they knew. Six years into this uncertain era known as ‘the Coda’, our anti-hero, human ‘man for fire’ Fetch Phillips, lands a new job. Fetch must track down a missing person: a mild-mannered vampire called Edmund Rye, who is no longer immortal but had seemed to be just about coping with his weakened state when he vanished.

From the off, Fetch seem very much the archetypal P.I. – glum, guarded, low in self-esteem and high in blood-alcohol content, but blessed with a quick wit and a couple of well-placed old friends. If all that sounds rather unoriginal, Fetch’s adoptive hometown more than makes up for it.

If you tried to list all the dangers in Sunder City, it would take you a year, and someone would likely stab you in the back and steal your pencil before you were done.

Sunder City has been deservedly compared to Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork. But whereas the Discworld’s similarly squalid metropolis seemed to grow organically over a string of freewheeling, genre-busting novels, Arnold seems anxious to nail down as much of the history, geography, politics and culture of Sunder as he can in one volume – laying the foundations for what he clearly plans to be a long-running series.

For the most part this exposition is blended in with the atmospheric descriptions, peppered with Chanderlesque dry wit. An early passage cleverly establishes the wider Archetelos landmass by describing how an official map (which arrogantly fudges the geography to have Sunder at its very centre) is routinely put to use as a dartboard.

The Dwarven Mountains that border the north are worth twenty but they guard the way to the Ragged Plains and if you land in those you lose five points.

Occasionally, the effortful world-building is overdone. Fetch’s investigations naturally take him into every stinky corner of the city, but around the halfway point, just as the plot builds up a head of steam, yet another long scene-setting description for yet another new neighbourhood risks grinding things to a halt.

The solution to the central mystery here is rewarding, with just enough clues dropped throughout the book, and it raises new questions about the complex, febrile world that Luke Arnold has conjured. Ultimately, I was left feeling very fond of both Fetch and Sunder, and keen to see where this series goes next.