Jim Butcher

In Plain Sight

1-In-Plain-SightThis book was recommended to me while visiting an out of town friend. My friend apologized for having lost the second book in the series, but said that they had the first and I would probably enjoy it. So, I took their copy and started reading it when I got home a few days later.  In Plain Sight by Dan Willis is the first in his Arcane Casebook series. It was first released in 2018 as a self-published work, I believe.  As I have said, I am making a strong effort to read things other than my “usual” bookshelf fare.  I am making a bit of an effort to read independent and small-press publishers, self-published works, genres I do not normal look into, and so forth.  I think there are eight books (so far) in the Arcane Casebook series and my friend had about five of them stacked on a shelf; and I have to tell you – they looked so pretty and appealing. (It is only fair to also say they were surrounded by media that had C+ and Python and similiar written all over them.)

So, I was kind of not sure what this novel would entail. I have read the first Harry Dresden (by Jim Butcher) novel and both enjoyed it and still disliked the main character.  I read that when the first couple novels in Butcher’s series The Dresden Files were released, let’s see, way back in 2000.  Twenty-something years ago, the subgenre urban fantasy was new and edgy and Butcher’s books were just another science fiction paperback. I think there are seventeen novels in that series now! Anyway, I cannot remember everything about my reading experience of Storm Front, but I know that I found it interesting and unique, but also a bit unpolished and maybe I did not love the main character – because he was supposed to be so eccentric and quirky that it felt like it was very forced. It was not a bad start, but it was not great. I never got around to reading the second book – though, currently, I believe the first five books sit on a bookshelf here at home.

I mention the Dresden Files because there are definitely some similarities with this Arcane Casebook novel.  They are, indeed, different in many respects, but there must be comparisons between the two as well, since readers will be familiar with the Dresden Files before coming to this series. My general impression after reading In Plain Sight is that is better than Storm Front. Which, honestly, is just saying that I liked it better. Neither novel is five stars and there are some improvements to be made in each, but if I had to recommend a modern magic/wizard novel to a reader, I would likely suggest Willis’ book.

The main character is Alex Lockerby who is a private detective in New York City 1933.  Now, I admit that I am drawn to Golden Age pulps, gritty city private detectives, noir crime stories, and black & white TV shows. So, the setting and the background tipped the scales in favor of this novel.  Lockerby, like all true isolated and loner heroes, is surrounded by the uniquely-skilled, providential crew of friends and helpers.  He was raised by a priest, taken into the home of and trained as a detective by a rich British doctor, and he managed to hire a savvy and sharp – and also good-looking – secretary for his office. So, the novel seems to want to tell us that Alex struggles on the sidewalks of NYC with the daily grind of running a loser business, but the fact of the matter is, he actually has a lot of safety-nets and helpers.

Lockerby is also a runewright, which is a type of magician, I suppose. The novel explains runewrights as sort of the mechanics and engineers of the magical world, contrasted with the fancy, high-level marvels of sorcerers. The concept of runewrights was one that I approached positively. I have no use for the Harry Potter business, but a runewright sounded like something with a lot of story potential that was just unique enough to set it aside from wand-wavers. Basically, runewrights are like draughtsmen who create a variety of runes using different configurations of symbols made with different inks and substances – many of which are expensive/rare to utilize.  Many of the runes can be somewhat physically taxing and can take hours to “draw.”  Some, of course, are minor and much faster to whip off using merely a pencil and a notepaper.

Alex was raised by Father Harrison Arthur Clementine at a local church/mission. And Father Harry is responsible for raising Alex into the diligent and moral character he is. However, Alex lives with his runewright mentor, Dr. Ignatius Bell, who served in the Royal Navy. Bell owns a brownstone in the City and spent at least two years training Alex in runewright skills as-well-as Sherlock Holmes-style detective work. He also feeds and cultures Alex. A mentor and a patron and a landlord. I can see how some of this chafes readers – Lockerby is supposedly a struggling private detective, but he has such a support system and had such assists through his “formative years” that he really ought to be doing a whole lot better than he is!

Alex also seems to have really bought into the stereotype that private detectives in the 1930s drink and smoke constantly. I do not mind, really, a heavy drinker/smoker in my novels – but I was trying to timeline out how much he drinks and it really is quite a large amount. This is to say, some of the cigarette lighting and two finger splashes pouring actually interupts the flow of the story instead of smoothly building its elements.

The storyline, honestly, is not super interesting. I enjoyed it, but mainly I did not pay much attention to it. I did not seem to care who the adversaries and culprits were or what their motives were, I was more interested in learning more about this magic 1933 NYC and going around with Alex lighting cigarettes and taking crawlers (magic-driven transportation).

I can understand some demanding readers being frustrated with the plot because it does seem very stereotypical and trope-filled. But I liked it – and I would use the words “Golden Era” and “classic.”  I know a lot of readers want each novel to push the boundaries of fiction and have ever-new storylines, but I was really content with hanging out with Lockerby and traipsing around to different crime scenes looking for clues. I enjoyed the storyline – it was engaging and interesting and kept right on moving. We met different characters along the way and there was not a lot of explanation and description – we learned on the job with Alex.

There are some minor twists at the end of the novel that might aggravate readers – Alex does not share with the reader everything he discovers. I mean, most of it is apparent, but there are a few items near the end of the book that it is revealed that Alex is aware of that the reader has to get surprised by. Some readers will be aggravated, I was amused and enjoyed it. Authors do not always have to play totally fair with readers – especially if its for our own entertainment.

4 stars

The Dark Side of the Road

the-dark-side-of-the-roadThe Dark Side of the Road is the first novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series.  Simon R. Green is a well-known author hailing from England.  He is known for writing a number of series including the Deathstalker, Hawk & Fisher, Nightside, and Ghost Finders series.  The Dark Side of the Road was first published in 2015.

I own the Deathstalker series novels and I have read three Nightside novels. I generally find Green’s writing to be a wee bit darker and a little less enjoyable than comparable authors. I recall that some readers recommended the Nightside series to fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden series.  Something that I think is somewhat similar betwixt the two series is the lead characters in both are somewhat snarky, rather jaded, loners who seem to be the only experts in a field of interest comprised of one member.

To be honest, these types of characters are nearly archetypal categories in certain genres.  They are necessary elements in a specific novel. This feels both comfortable and also saddening.  I do not mind admitting that sometimes you want to read a novel that contains character-forms that are already familiar. Fantasy novels (particularly traditional epic fantasy novels) are rife with examples.  Let me give an example; the group of archetypal characters has a quest.  The group always consists of:  the comedy, the wizard, the brute, the knight, and the Everyman.  Some readers treat this negatively.  I admit that I sometimes find it horribly unoriginal and tiring, too.  However, on occasion it is just easily comfortable to know who the characters are before you open the cover.

So, when I say that Ishmael Jones is one of those characters who is a loner, drinks moodily at the pub, answers questions with questions/without giving any data, and prides himself on being without roots or hindrances – you know exactly the character I mean. Immediately the reader has to confront the name of the character. The first line of the novel is: “Call me Ishmael. Ishmael Jones.”

At this point, it can go one of two ways… A.) The reader can guffaw and snort with the author at the painfully obvious reference AND think this is a neat name for a character; B.) The reader can be disgusted by the over-the-top obnoxiousness of this line and name. Honestly, I was in the second group. I like sarcasm and and satire, but this is just too much.

Anyway, this story takes place at Christmastime in rural Cornwall.  Green sets the whole story (which is a total of three days) in the middle of a horrendous blizzard.  I read this book at the start of January and I recommend readers keep this one for December and January as well. It helps reading the thing if it is also wintertime.  This is no beach read and reading it at Myrtle or Clearwater will ruin the effect because the blizzard is providing the “locked-room” constraint to the novel.

Jones is invited to spend Christmas at a country manor house with the Colonel and the Colonel’s family.  Jones has known the Colonel for fifteen years, but their relationship has been solely work-focused. They work, of course, in a secret, underground, shadowy world. The Colonel’s invite to come to Cornwall, therefore leaves Jones agitated and worried. Jones is not the sort of person you invite anywhere unless there is serious business to be handled.

Throughout the first chunk of the novel, Green repetitively drops “hints” (if by hint we mean sledgehammer) about how Jones is abnormal. He is special. He is a little more skilled, robust, knowledgeable than he should be. He is well-trained and heavily experienced – at whatever shadowy and mysterious tasks he does.

And for the first half of the novel, the storyline is slow. After all the whole novel is only spanning three days of time. So, the first half spends a lot of time setting the scene and meeting the characters. Naturally, Jones is an aloof house guest who provides a sketch of each of the other members at the party.  Some of this is very info-dumpish and heavy-handed. Its not good writing – there is no nuance whatsoever. But it is vaguely interesting. Because the story feels a lot less like Nightside and a lot more like a mystery novel.

And go ahead and admit it with me….. a blizzard at Christmas in a rural Cornwall manor house with a mystery afoot…. is definitely something you want to read even if the writing is hack and weak.

The second half of the novel is where the action takes place. And events transpire quickly, once they get going. The novel is very much like Clue – but with some supernatural elements. And I need to share here that the events do get very gory at times. So, it is not a light and bright read.  There is some gore that will bother the best imaginations that read this story.

The ending opens the knowledge that this will be a series. But as a standalone, this is okay – it is a completed, closed unit in itself. Will I read the second? Oh sure, but not because it is  great novel. I will read on because it is such easy reading to find out what happens next to a character who, in his own way, is quite unique – even if a lot of tropes cover his landscape. The secret organization is actually the real hook Green got me with….

In some ways, this is a genre-mixing of a couple ideas. Tropes and archetypes abound. It is not nuanced or complex. But it is interesting, fast-reading, and entertaining.

3 stars

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