As a Christmas gift to myself, I bought the complete collection of Randall Garrett’s LORD DARCY fantasy detective stories. I had the original three books of the series, but this includes a short story Garrett wrote for an anthology several years later, so why not go completist?
The stories are set in an alternate history in which Richard the Lion-Hearted survived the Crusades and returned home sober and more mature, to become a great king. A bigger turning point is that a couple of hundred years after the divergence, a scholar figured out the underlying principles of magic. By the 20th century, the Anglo-French Empire has endured for centuries, as has the Catholic Church (no Henry VIII disestablishing the church in this timeline). Technology stopped at the Victorian level (gas lights, trains) but magic has replaced it. Magic provides healing (in one story, a character speaks disparagingly of folk remedies based on moldy bread or foxglove—i.e., penicillin and digitalis) and also forensic science. By the laws of contagion (two connected objects are never truly separate) a trained mage can make a bullet return to the gun that fired it, or confirm the blood on a blunt instrument is actually tied to the murder victim.
I’ve never seen anyone convey the sense of magic-as-science so well, while keeping the magic resolutely magical. It’s not a world where magic works for everyone, as technology does (a big difference between the two); it’s a talent only some can practice, and it takes training to wield well. One of the characters compares to having a natural talent for music. Yet at the same time, it is presented as something reliable and efficient, albeit in different directions. We may have lost out on electric lighting but magical healers can promise most people a century of life.
Garrett implies in one story that magic is what keeps the empire and the church strong: sensitivity to evil allows the authorities to purge themselves of the corrupt, the cruel and practitioners of black magic. I don’t entirely buy this (I think revolution and religious schism would be probable in any timeline) but I’ll concede the point (the real reason, I suspect, is that as a devout Catholic, Garrett just liked giving the church a big role). Overall, Garrett’s worldbuilding is the strongest part of the book for me (as witness it’s what I’ve discussed first).
The stories themselves are primarily classic mystery puzzlers (question stories, as I put it here), with magic added. Lord Darcy, a royal investigator, and his Irish sidekick Sean look into murders (espionage cases as well) using their respective abilities of deductive brilliance and forensic magic. Characterization is thin, but usually adequate, and the mysteries are well-executed. The rules of magic are tightly designed enough that they don’t provide an easy out for either the killer or the detectives.
One weakness the tales have is the heavy exposition. Sean, you see, likes to lecture about his craft, which is Garrett’s excuse for providing info-dumps. It doesn’t bother me as much as usualy because the information is interesting, but it does feel forced.
A bigger problem is Garrett’s women. In most of the stories, they’re ciphers, witnesses or suspects with zero character. Admittedly these are minor roles but a lot of mystery writers managed to give the bit players some personality. A few stories are all-male. We get a couple of adequate female roles in the novel Too Many Magicians, but overall it’s glaring how male-dominated the series is.
Despite the flaws, I’m quite happy to have the book on my shelves.
(Cover image rights belong to current holder)