Monday, January 21, 2013

Vintage SF: Randall Garrett's Murder and Magic

In 1199, Richard the Lionhearted died from a crossbow wound at the Seige of Chaluz, leaving his neglected English throne in the hands of his brother Prince John.

At least that's one way the story goes. But what if history had gone a little differently?

In the world of Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy, Richard the Lionhearted recovered from his wounds and settled down to the running of England and France. Without heirs of his own, Richard entrusted the kingdom over to Arthur, the capable son of his dead brother Geoffrey. Arthur made a brilliant marriage and expanded the kingdom until the Plantagenet Empire was the most powerful on the planet. 

But this is also a world where the laws of magic were codified and treated as a science. Those with the Talent are trained to be sorcerers or healers, fully licensed and sanctioned by the Church. Healers perform their work through the laying on of hands, allowing people to live longer. But superstition and distrust hasn't disappeared completely from this world, creating an underworld of hedge wizards and "black magic" users that feed off the general populace's fears. These fears are also encouraged by agents abroad.

The Chief Criminal Investigator to Richard, Duke of Normandy, Lord Darcy must solve the unsolvable, while aided by Master Sean O Lochlainn. Lord Darcy is the master detective of this universe, lacking any Talent of his own, except his remarkable mind and powers of observation. Master Sean O Lochlainn is a master sorcerer with a particular interest in forensics. Lord Darcy and Master Sean work as an able team, confident in each other's special abilities.

The first Lord Darcy collection, Murder and Magic, was published in 1979, but all four stories were published earlier. Each story is what would be called "fair play" murder mysteries as all the clues are provided. Master Sean provides the bulk of the magical evidence, quick to lecture on the various magical laws and how they relate to a particular situation. Lord Darcy does his own investigating and draws his own conclusions. Very often he just needs Sean to back up his suspicions.

Rereading these stories, I was struck by several things. A reviewer commented on the religious overtones of the series and it's quite true. The Church is a strong component of everyday life in this universe.  Priests and clerics appear as characters throughout the series. Only "The Muddle of the Woad" shows a glimpse of how they regard challenges to traditional Christian life with the Society of Albion with its claims to Druidic paganism. No Reformation is mentioned, but compared to say Keith Roberts' Pavane, there's also no reference to the Pope or Vatican in this first collection. All the same I could see how the religious references might feel overwhelming.

What irked me throughout the collection were the women or lack thereof, although to his credit, there were no female murder victims. But there are also no female magic users and with the Church so heavily involved, one wonders if they're even allowed to wield magic. In "Stretch of Imagination", Damoselle Barbara allows as she has "above average" Talent, but no one asks why she is never trained, so one could see her perspective cast aside as feminine intuition, nothing more. None of the stories pass the Bechdel test either; even there are multiple female characters, they don't interact with each other.

Garrett is also quite repetitive as a writer. Presumably Garrett was trying to make the stories to standalone, so he had to repeat his world's history. That meant reading about Richard's survival multiple times and he didn't vary the story all that much. He also used the same pet phrases when describing certain characters, like Lord Darcy speaking Anglo-French with an English accent or describing Master Sean as the tubby Irish sorcerer. As separate stories, it probably wasn't so bad, but taken together in one volume, the combined effect could get rather tiresome.

In his lifetime, Randall Garrett published two Lord Darcy short story collections (Murder & Magic and Lord Darcy Investigates) and one novel (Too Many Magicians). All of these stories, plus several uncollected stories, were published in one volume Lord Darcy by Baen Books in 2002. Michael Kurland also published a pair of Lord Darcy books continuing the series with Ten Little Wizards and A Study in Sorcery.

All told I still enjoyed this first collection. Lord Darcy has a certain undeniable charm and I love his interactions with Master Sean. Since it's the first series of stories, I'm willing to allow a certain leeway to see if Randall Garrett develops the universe further.  This series both fascinates and frustrates me as a reader. I love the world and how it melds so well with the mystery genre. I intend to continue my Lord Darcy reading with the rest of the series, so we'll see if my misgivings are assuaged.


redhead said...

This sounds great! I do love mysteries where the clues are provided so there's a chance in hell I can figure it out for myself. Nothing is more annoying than getting to the final reveal and it being something that makes no sense at all. And I'm a sucker for alt history too!

Too bad about the repetitiveness, but like you said, it's probably because they were originally meant to be read as stand alones. JK Rowling does that with Harry Potter, most of the first 2 chapters of each book is just review of the characters. She probably never thought that people would be doing HP reading marathons!

Julia said...

My father learned the hard way about the repetitiveness of the Harry Potter books. He'd decided on a whim to read them one day and he couldn't find book 3 so he read book 4 first. He wound up massively spoiled for that third book because of the recap. In this case, they're not spoilers so much as a repeated backstory, so you understand that this world doesn't have our same history.

Glad you enjoyed the review and thanks for running the (not a) challenge. I do encourage finding the collected volume from Baen.