Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

October 1, 2020

Please note, Dead Man in a Ditch is a direct sequel to the first Fetch Phillips novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City. If you want my advice, if you haven’t already, I would start there. If you don’t what follows may contain some minor spoilers. Consider yourselves suitably warned.

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.

Rumors 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.

Earlier this year I read Luke Arnold’s debut novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City. The novel introduced us to Fetch Phillips, a human detective trying to get by in a city full of all manner of fantastical beings. The twist? Magic had disappeared and every magical creature was suffering because of it. When Dead Man in a Ditch begins, Fetch is starting to make a reputation for himself, no matter how much he may not want it. There are still those clinging to the belief that magic is out there somewhere and that Fetch is the man to find it. What follows is a twisty-turny journey through the dark underbelly of a city that has more than its fair share of secrets. Murder is never just murder in Sunder City. There are conspiracies afoot and Fetch is going to find himself up to his neck in them.

I love the fantasy noir that Luke Arnold has created in this series of novels. The familiar rubs shoulders with the otherworldly. Where else are you going to find succubae plastic surgeons, or elves with out-of-control gambling habits? There is something deliciously grimy about it all. Our erstwhile gumshoe exists in a world of shadows where no-one is quite what they seem, and trust is a dirty word.

Fetch joins that proud tradition of crumpled, down-at-heel souls who make perfect detectives. You know the sort; they tend to become entirely consumed by uncovering the truth of a matter. They exhibit a dogged tenacity that demands they see any case through to conclusion irrespective of personal cost. In Dead Man in a Ditch there is little denying Fetch gets used and abused in all manner of different ways. This doesn’t stop him from moving forward however. Fetch is smart, daring and on more than one occasion just damned lucky. Another set of qualities that are going to help any investigator.

If you look deeper you’ll discover there is also an underlying sadness in Fetch. He has done things that he is trying to atone for, but you get the impression whatever he does it will ever be enough. This internal trauma fleshes out Fetch’s character. It makes it easier to empathise when you realise how broken he is. The plot of Dead Man in a Ditch goes some way to address this. Fetch finally reaches what I would optimistically call rock bottom. The city is a mess, Fetch’s life is a mess and he is finally forced to confront the demons of his past. Fetch has to make a difficult choice; he has reached one of those life-defining crossroads moments. I loved it.

Like its predecessor, this novel is played pretty straight but there are a handful of darkly comic moments. Our protagonist does have a tendency to run his mouth off and this can lead to ‘issues’. I get the impression Fetch is a believer in the ‘fake it till you make it’ approach to life. He certainly isn’t averse to bluffing his way through a crisis if necessary.

The evolution of Sunder City itself is also a key factor in this novel. Times they are a’changin and those changes are reshaping the metropolis from the ground up. The big question is can magic and science exist together comfortably? The author has obviously spent time on his world building, and it shows. The story builds on the groundwork set in book one, and expands upon it successfully.

I’m really enjoying this series. The characters are fun, the plots whip along at a pace and the whole premise smacks of endless potential. I’m starting to see evidence of a larger tale unfolding and I’d be more than happy if we see a new Fetch Phillips novel every year for the foreseeable future. The Last Smile in Sunder City was no fluke, Luke Arnold is an author well worth checking out*.

Dead Man in a Ditch is published by Orbit and is available now. Highly recommended.

My musical recommendation to accompany this novel is the soundtrack to The Snowman by Marco Beltrami. Tonally it is a perfect fit. Listening to the tracks while reading the novel added a nice air of tension to proceedings. Exactly what you need when you are trying to uncover a killer.

*I shall now go and wait impatiently for the next book in the series.

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