Review: Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf

Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf
Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf by Terry Newman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Former guard turned PI Nicely Strongoak is a dwarf in an elf’s world. Okay, not just elves. There’s also imps, ogres, tree folk, goblins, humans and various other high fantasy book mainstays. As the book opens, Nicely gets involved in a case whereby the ex-boyfriend of a girl who works down the hall from his office has gone missing. And a high class dame from the right side of the tracks comes downtown to hire Nicely to recover a stolen ring. Then there’s the surf elves (like surf nazis but with pointed ears – no seriously) and exiled royalty and it all culminates with an elf in the passenger seat of Strongoak’s vehicle who happens to have an ax buried deep in his skull (The “Dead Elf” of the title).

From there, things really go off the rails. There are plots and subplots, dead ends and dark alleys. There are racial issues and monologues about evolution. And a dragon because, well, dragon.

This is all well and good but, like most detective stories these days, everything is actually interconnected and convoluted to the point of absurdity. Terry Newman, who evidently came to writing after a career as a biologist and has this published via an open door contest, is making sure every single idea he’s ever had is thrown into the mix. Oh yeah, the book is also supposed to be funny. Considering Newman is allegedly making his primary income as a comedy writer, this would seem a no-brainer except it’s not. It’s barely amusing.

One of the problems seems to be that Newman really doesn’t understand the genre he’s parodying beyond a weekend marathon of Peter Jackson films. This book proves the axiom “it’s all in the execution,” reading like someone who had a clever idea (it is clever) but had absolutely no idea how to turn it into an actual book. Being a scriptwriter does not qualify one to write prose – they are different art forms and should be treated as such.

Character wise, there are too many to keep track of, especially when none of them, especially the major ones, are distinctive. Ironically, Newman imbues his minor characters with distinguishing speech patterns and nuance so they actually become what you remember and not the primary at all. Even our hero, Nicely Strongoak is wishy washy. We get a bit of his background but with almost all of his relationships (particularly with the three female leads) we’re told what we’re supposed to think about the actions and then none of Strongoak’s reasoning makes much sense.

One of the big complaints being leveled at the eBook market is that the publishers treat it like a bastard stepchild. The assumption is that for whatever reason the consumer doesn’t care as much about the end product as those who buy physical books. Or maybe, there’s a downsizing happening in editorial offices. Either way, I’m actually glad to have read “Terry Newman is one of 15 authors signed up by major fantasy publisher Harper Voyager after an open submissions fortnight” on Newman’s own website. I’m glad because what it says to me is Harper Voyager was doing some kind of a stunt and not terribly invested in the outcome. This is good because there was absolutely no editorial hand visible in this book. Forget someone to guide the first time novelist through the rough patches of 500 page story-telling, there are grammar and syntax errors which are unforgivable. It felt like they took the manuscript as was, decided it was “good enough” and slapped a mediocre cover over a bland title and moved on to the next of the 15 books. Of course it’s bad in that I kept looking to make sure it wasn’t self-published, which would have explained a lot.

In the end, it’s not a horrible book, but it’s not good, either. If there wasn’t so much sex and adult situations (and with some judicious editing) Detective Strongoak might have made a good YA. If the plot had been more coherent and either the fantasy or noir genres been more studied, it could have been a clever send up of either or both. As it stands, it’s just… meh.

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