The novel Red Hot Steele by Alex Berg is part of a subset of urban fantasy which I call police procedural fantasy. In the standard urban fantasy, a Marlowesque character dives into the seamy underside of some modern city’s supernatural population. From Mike Resnick’s fun romp, Stalking the Unicorn, to the darker works of Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake series, to the Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, which falls between the two, urban fantasy is vastly popular.
Fans have eagerly responded to the noir-ish PI prototype duking it out with vampires, werewolves and witches. The cynical, world weary hero is the 20th century’s answer to the Cowboy, another mythic figure ingrained in the American psyche.
Police procedurals are different. The cop is a “company” man, who follows the rules, unlike Mike Hammer who in I, Jury shoots the murderer in the gut to die slowly. Joe Friday of Dragnet is the patron saint of this school of mystery. In the realm of novels, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct was the greatest example of this form. While these are also a popular genre, rarely has been it blended with fantasy.
One of the reasons is that mysteries and procedurals in particular rely on rules and, when science fiction is added to the mix, there is a temptation to cheat. In a column written in the New York Times Review of Books in 1969, Allen J. Hubin explained the problem as “avoiding the temptation to solve a baffling crime by whisking a batch of hypothetical science from under the Venusian carpet.”
Similarly, with fantasy it’s cheating if the murder in the locked room was performed with a teleportation spell.
The late Randell Garrett figured out how to perform this delicate balance with his outstanding Lord Darcy stories. He constructed a logical world, based upon logical laws of magic. Because magic works, Garett realized that history would be different and so his England bears only a passing resemblance to the real one.
Alex Berg meets with mixed results.
I did like Red Hot Steele. Berg set out to create a breezy, fun read and he fully succeeded. I blew through the book in two sittings. The first book in the series has promise and hopefully Berg will successfully hone his craft.
Berg’s world is not that of the modern urban fantasy. He has constructed his own city in an alternate universe. It feels like mid-19th century New York, and a sly reference to the 7 boroughs only reinforces that perception. The main character is Daggers, a city detective who covers his empty life with work, inappropriate humor, food and alcohol. His partner of twelve years and whom he barely knew, has retired and the captain has saddled him with a newbie, a booked-learned, half-elf female detective named Steele. Berg does not do this with a straight face.
The problem with any mystery story these days is that it is very hard to avoid cliché. Berg goes the other way, by openly embracing the cliché with a smile, he lets us know not to take this seriously.
The new partners are faced with a murder of a socialite at a charity event. Their investigation takes them from the mansions of the rich to dwarf drug dealers in the slums. Murder, blackmail, embezzling and con games litter the path to the solution.
Berg is having fun with his characters and so will you.
My only gripe is that the magical trappings are unnecessary. Berg could have told the same story without elves, dwarves or magic. I can only surmise that he loves fantasy worlds and thought it would be neat to play to play in one.
This, however, is a minor gripe. Red Hot Steele is not great literature but it is a light and entertaining diversion.