An Audio-Book Review: Elementary, My Dear Master Sean!


Murder and Magic: Lord Darcy, Book 1

By Randall Garrett

Published by Audible Studios

Read by Victor Villar-Hauser

 

The Book:

Now here’s a true classic of the fantasy genre that has nothing in common with The Lord of the Rings save that they were both written in English. I think that’s important when so many fantasy stories these days are written in a pseudo-Medieval milieu and attempt to be epic adventures similar to the works of Tolkien. Randall Garrett shows us that you can write a good fantasy in an alternative timeline that is filled with magic and is not medieval (or earlier). These are the stories (well, some of them) of Lord Darcy, Chief Criminal Investigator for His Royal Highness, Richard, Duke of Normandy (and sometimes Special Investigator for His Royal Majesty’s High Court of Chivalry).

Lord Darcy can be seen as a sort of combination of Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, but deserves to stand out on his own in any collection of fictional detectives. He certainly fits the mold of these classic detectives, but what sets him apart is the world he lives in and the situations he is responsible for resolving. He lives in a world of both alternative history and one in which magic is real.

There are rules to any genre and in any properly devised alternative history, there is a single point of deviation from the history we are taught in in school. In Darcy’s world, all went the same as it did in our time line until the siege at Châlus-Chabrol where King Richard I (the Lionheart) was shot with a crossbow. In Darcy’s world, Richard survived the wound (and more important the medical quackery he was subjected to following the wound) and there after settled down and became a good king. When his brother John attempted to rebel a second time, Richard put him down and did not forgive him again and so when Richard died, it was Arthur, the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet who ascended to the throne and thus the Angevin Empire survived to the current day.

And then there is the magic.

When I was an anthropology student in college I chanced to take a class on Magic. The class mostly centered on shamanistic magic; its theory and practice, but we did study magic as practiced in many different cultures. What impressed me the most was how scientific magic is. People living in a highly technological culture see magic as something akin to an illusionist’s act with a lot of hokus-pocus and deception, or else we see it as something from out of the Lord of the Rings in which Gandalf raises his staff and balks the Balrog through force of will and perhaps the willful manipulation of raw power – Tolkien never actually gives us the details of how it works. However, to a shaman, magic is bound up in laws and rituals. It is a science to him, because he knows he cannot just wave a wand and have something happen. His magic is based on doing everything just right; the right spell ingredients, the right prayers, the right rituals. The spells must obey the Laws of Contagion (two objects that were once in contact, remain in contact) and Sympathy (an action performed in microcosm will be reflected in macrocosm – the most well-known example is the “Rain Dance” which almost always includes at some point the pouring or sprinkling of water to symbolize the desired rainfall). A Shaman understands that his magic not only works but is reproducible and that if it does not work, either he did something wrong or someone else (a person or spirit) was working against him.

This is how the magic of Lord Darcy’s world works too. The difference is that because the magic is real, it is the basis of the world’s technology as well. Master Sean O’Lochlainn, Darcy’s usual assistant, is a forensic sorcerer and it is he who usually explains the theory of magic in that world. Magic is science in that world, just as it is to a shaman, and the magicians of Darcy’s world have studied the practice scientifically. So if we take the Law of Contagion I mentioned above, when Master Sean explains it, he points out that it is modified by “Relevancy.” The scientific sorcerers have further refined Contgagion to account for the fact that a button that has been ripped off a garment will be more relevant to the garment as a whole than, say, a ribbon that might have been worn with it, and that the weaver who made the cloth or the tailor who sewed it is more relevant to the garment as it is than the person who wore it from time to time.

Darcy’s world feels sort of 19th Century on reading it, although Garrett actually placed it concurrent with the time he was writing the stories (1964 and onward). Technology as we know it is somewhat lacking although they do have a telephone-like device and trains, but much travel is still done on horseback. I do not think that magic reliance necessarily means a lower form of technology, but this is the way Garrett built his world and it works wonderfully.

Yet with both alternative history and the use of magic instead of our more mundane technology, the Lord Darcy stories are good solid whodunits. Magic is never used as a cheat to solve the mystery. It might establish the clues, but it is the brilliant mind of Darcy, himself, that puts those clues together and solves the mystery at hand. Randall Garrett managed to write these stories in such a way that he was able to quickly describe the situations in such a way that does not confuse the reader and definitely never gets in the way of the basic mystery.

Isaac Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel back in the 1950’s because he was told by John Campbell that one could not mix science fiction and mystery and come up with a good story, and a little over a decade later Randall Garret showed us that fantasy mixes with mystery just as well. These are stories calculated to enthrall devotees of both genres and stand as classics of them as well.

 

The Audiobook:

I really enjoyed Victor Villar-Hauser’s reading of this book. He did so with a mixture of British and continental European accents that fit the various ethnicities of Lord Darcy’s Angevin Empire and their major political nemesis, the Kingdom of Poland. I’ll admit that it caused me to wonder what language Darcy was really speaking and how it might have been pronounced. I doubt he could have been speaking Modern English. More likely he spoke something that was a mixture of Medieval French and Middle English that had shifted in pronunciation over the years in some unpredictable way. Similarly, Master Sean’s Irish accent of the Angevin language probably would not sound exactly as Mister Villa-Hauser performed it, but not only would I not expect a narrator to invent an accent, such inventions would not have added nothing to the story. Instead his use of various modern accents not only differentiated the characters perfectly, but gave the listener a sense of place. In all, it was very well done.

So I truly recommend both these classic stories of fantastic mystery brought to life by Victor Villar-Hauser’s reading of them. Enjoy!

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