The most important thing about a locked-room mystery is not to cheat the reader. This is doubly important in a speculative fiction locked-room mystery where magic or aliens are always on hand if a writer finds they have plotted themselves into a corner (the Greeks might have invented the deus ex machina but SF writers really made it their own).
Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton is less secondary-world fantasy than very, very alternate history—a companion piece to C. J. Samson's Roman thrillers, as the publicity material puts it—and its protagonist is quick to explicitly rule out any funny business: "I don't think the supernatural has anything to do with the murder" (p. 96). So Newton plays straight with the rules of reality but, in every other respect, I felt short-changed.
Lucan Drakenfeld is an officer of the Sun Chamber, "a vast and bureaucratic organization [which] enforces the Treaty of Royal Blood, a two-centuries-old law that bound together the eight nations of Vispasia in union" (p. 12). That is Drakenfeld speaking and he narrates his story in this pedantic and lifeless manner throughout. A couple of pages previously, for example, the chapter has opened with the following thrilling hook: "Preparing for my return home, the following morning I headed to the merchant house by the harbour in Venyn City, capital of the nation of Venyn, to exchange my money for a receipt with the intention of exchanging it back for the local currency, peculas, upon reaching Tryum in Detrata" (p. 10). The minimum standard for literature is that it keeps the reader awake; Newton comes perilously close to flunking out.
Drakenfeld is returning from backwater duty in Venyn because of the death of his father Calludian, a famous Sun Chamber agent, and, on arrival in his home city, is informed that he will be stepping into his late father's sandals as ranking officer in Tryum. In the letter where he learns this, Drakenfeld reads that his appointment is "by order of Commissioner Tibus" (p. 34). He then immediately explains that "Tibus had ordered the move—high praise indeed, coming from one of four commissioners, a high rank in the Sun Chamber" (p. 35). The first third of the sentence is pure repetition, the second third is probably superfluous, the final third definitely is and then there is that ungainly double "high." This sets a template for the prose throughout the novel: long-winded, clumsy, and, above all, boring. In contrast, the chapter titles are bluntly descriptive to the point of being comic. So the chapter where our detective hero encounters the central mystery of the novel is simply entitled "The Locked-Temple Murder." (Others include "Politics," "Debts," "The Bookshelf," and, my personal favourite, "A Small, Underground Tavern.")
The victim of this impossible murder is the king's sister, Lacanta, who was, by all accounts, a slag. This widespread innuendo actually proves to be untrue but it allows Newton to introduce Drakenfeld's sole defining characteristic: he is a thoroughly modern chap. So he is at pains to register his disapproval of such sexist gossip: "I noticed the derogatory way the old man spoke about women, his patriarchal and archaic attitude if they did not conform to his beliefs of how they should behave" (p. 70). This immediately after a paragraph in which said old man has just spoken about Lacanta in derogatory way and, further, demonstrated his patriarchal and archaic attitude. Infelicities like this abound. For example, shortly afterward, we are told that the king is profoundly distraught about Lacanta's death: "Licintius glanced down at the floor and his silence was profound" (p. 83). How profound? Very profound: "With a look of profound weariness Licintius marched back to the group" (p. 84). Newton's debut novel, Nights of Villjamur (2009), was littered with these unforced errors; I was not expecting to find them five books into his career.
The puzzle murder which should form the heart of the novel is just about fair but slightly silly and hardly ingenious. This is just as well: the Sun Chamber may be an elite law enforcement agency charged with keeping a whole continent together but gods know what they teach in their academy.
There are different types of literary detective but Drakenfeld isn't a genius or a grafter. Rather than relying on intellect, imagination, or elbow grease, he simply follows a trail of authorial breadcrumbs. Occasionally Newton himself seems to tire of his own character's indifferent methods—"I needed to be patient. Ideas were slowly forming in my mind" (p. 329)—and resorts to throwing whole loaves at his head. Nor is Drakenfeld a political operator or even particularly streetwise. The suggestion that his dad liked a flutter literally knocks him on his arse: "'Gambling?' The word seemed to physically hit me and I sat down on a wicker chair, dumbstruck" (p. 212). Shortly after this he is informed that a vial he has taken from his father's room contains poison. "My eyes widened in astonishment" (p. 244). Poor little naïf; a city like Tryum would eat him alive. Newton clearly intends him to be slightly green but he is also a veteran copper, something never evident from his actions.
But what Drakenfeld lacks even more than deductive reasoning, a work ethic, and a political antennae is a personality. Here, for example, is his stuffed-shirt response to some gentle teasing whilst out on a date: "I didn't mind being pretentious—there was nothing wrong with appreciating good things—but I took exception to being called po-faced" (p. 305). And here he is performing po-faced armchair psychoanalysis on his only friend: "I got the impression that he'd crossed a point in his life where he just didn't care any more, and that he would now forever drift between islands of sensual pleasure. While I'd had my suspicions about Veron, I felt rather sad for him, suspecting that he might actually be a rather lonely man" (p. 189).
Perhaps Drakenfeld is meant to be a dullard; perhaps, along with the hackneyed prose that abounds, this what the audience for Samson and all those other authors with gold embossed names crave. I just can't see how a protagonist this uninteresting is going to sustain a series of detective novels though.
The supporting characters are an equally empty bunch. Firstly, there is Leana, his bodyguard, assistant, and all-round narrative void. We learn so little about her that Newton takes the ultimate authorial cop-out: "Our relationship was hard to explain to most people: we expressed our bond in our shared silences, our unspoken gestures" (p. 100). Instead, Leana is pretty much solely defined by her otherness; the darkness of her skin and her immigrant status allowing plenty of opportunities for Drakenfeld to show off his liberal credentials:
"We saw she came in with you. Are you comfortable doing business with something like that?"
"Like what?" I demanded, noting how they viewed Leana with some disdain. (p. 109)
Oh you noted that, did you, Drakenfeld? It is important for a detective to be methodical but his insistence on cataloguing the abundantly obvious from every human interaction suggests Asperger's syndrome. Literature lives in the gap between the word on the page and the word in the reader's mind; again and again, Newton squeezes the life out of this gap. Passages such as this where Drakenfeld's simple reaction speaks volumes about the world and his character are all too rare:
A boy ran in front of us carrying a headless dove by its feet, leaving a trail of blood; he called for his father to make an offering to Trymus before the races began, and his father happily indulged his son's eagerness.
Smiling, I turned back to Malvus. (p. 287)
Next we have the aforementioned Veron, a senator and, more importantly, an expositional mouthpiece, tour guide and general plot progresser. He is also indulgent cheese to Drakenfeld's austere chalk: "It became apparent, very early on in our relationship, that Veron was something of a gossip" (p. 186). This did indeed become apparent, very early on; perhaps Newton has forgotten that the reader has known Veron for just as long as Drakenfeld has.
Finally, we have Titania, his first and only love. She is working as definitely-not-a-stripper in definitely-not-a-strip-club - presumably because jazz bars and torch singers haven't been invented yet in this society. Despite the fact she is wearing a mask, high-minded Drakenfeld clocks there is something special about her immediately: "It was an utterly enchanting move, but seemed to be technically brilliant too" (p.192). They parted on bad terms, however:
In a rapid move, Titania slapped me across my right cheek.
That really hurt.
"I probably deserve that," I breathed. (p. 194)
This is familiar in that it suggests a creative fiction exercise where a pile of cards covered in clichés from noir fiction are deployed to stimulate the author's muse. Let's turn over the next card:
"You can't still feel such hatred for me?" I asked, exasperated.
"I can—and I do," she replied.
Whether she pulled me or I pushed her gently back against the door, it was impossible to tell, but it was certainly mutual. Her lips moved to within inches of mine, and we just remained there, knowing exactly what to do, but uncertain of the consequences. (p. 194)
Given this introduction, I don't think I am spoiling anything to say Titania turns out to be a femme fatale straight from central casting who is immediately refrigerated once she is no longer of plot utility. I won't quote the revelation of her treachery but if you have a copy you can turn to page 353 and witness another restrained response that would do that famous Roman actor Calculon proud.
Each of these clichés and fumbles are an arrow in the body of the book and, though the novel lurches on valiantly, eventually Drakenfeld is brought to its knees. At one point Drakenfeld assures the reader: "Words can only achieve so much." Perhaps so but they can certainly achieve more than this.
Mark Charon Newton's meticulous research into ancient Rome has paid off amply in Drakenfeld. This novel, which marks the beginning of a new series, combines elements of mystery and alternate history in order to flesh out the politics of the Royal Vispasian Union, a contentious group of allied nation-states policed by the Sun Chamber. The Sun Chamber supports the sovereign rulers of each state, and also functions like police force. Its agents are trained in both criminology and the law, with many worshipping Polla, a goddess who prizes wisdom, common sense, and critical thinking in her devotees.
This is not the kind of gritty mystery that will knock off the reader's socks with its revelations about human depravity, the depths of political corruption, or the impulsive toll of lust. Instead, reading this novel is like sinking into a good massage. Newton's prose is leisurely and relaxing. For me, this novel read less as a true mystery and more as an exercise in worldbuilding. By focusing so much attention on the political and social landscape, Newton distracts the reader from the overall flimsiness of the two linked mysteries forming the core of Drakenfeld. What violence there is serves the larger plot, and is never presented sensationally or gratuitously, but instead with a sensitivity that both highlights its impact on the characters and illustrates its matter-of-fact presence in a classical world where physical violence is a constant. This is particularly praiseworthy because it emphasizes the idealism of Lucan Drakenfeld, the narrator and an Officer of the Sun Chamber, who is invested in developing regional police forces and prefers to avoid armed conflict when possible. Drakenfeld's greatest weakness is that he is incredibly naïve, something his colleague Leana notes often. He believes in the Royal Vispasian Union, the work of the Sun Chamber, and the ideals of Polla.
Polla is a good example of the type of interesting worldbuilding present in this alternative ancient Rome. Drakenfeld prays to this goddess every morning, using this as an opportunity to think logically and meditate on the life of this policewoman-cum-goddess. She's not widely worshipped, which makes sense for such an ascetic faith. Because of this, when Drakenfeld relishes the joyous bloodlust of the crowd during festivals or the pageantry of large-scale religious ceremonies at the palace, the reader has an opportunity to appreciate how these rituals fit into Tryum's social life. Drakenfeld won't himself buy a dove for a boy to sacrifice, but, because he's a product of this world, he does consider witnessing such a scene as adorable as, say, watching a five year old wheedle a parent into buying an overpriced vuvuzuela at a street parade. While it seems at first a surreal image, it's these snapshots of idyllic, everyday Tryum that make the novel "pop."
Another example of this worldbuilding are Drakenfeld's allusions to the cultural, legislative, and political differences that make the Vispasian Union an uneasy one. Tryum is notoriously parochial in its gender relations, particularly in its condemnation of flirtatious women, while another of its sister-states is comparatively progressive and ruled by a queen. However, each of the states in the Union are bound together through a shared belief in the divine right of its rulers to rule, in a system similar to the rex sacrocrum of ancient Rome. When Tryum's government is destabilized because of Drakenfeld's investigation, the political implications of the blood-hungry senate's rise to political and religious power span the entirety of the Union. It would be easy for this Union to fracture, and its demise would be fascinating.
The novel begins with Drakenfeld receiving a letter notifying him of his father's death (a death we learn is tied to greater mysteries as the novel progresses), and the narrative seamlessly moves between Drakenfeld's personal history and the political, social, and gendered history of this world. Even Drakenfeld’s friendship with his bodyguard and partner Leana, an Atrewan warrior whose ethnicity makes her a victim of prejudice in many of the states in the Vispasia, is situated in this larger sociopolitical context. While this relationship is at times portrayed a little simplistically, the professional trust and friendship these characters share with one another is one of the novel's strengths for me. Drakenfeld, with his determined innocence, squeamishness, and epilepsy, would not be able to survive in Tryum, the city where the novel takes place, without Leana. I particularly liked that Leana seeks out other Atrewans, and that Drakenfeld is careful to not intrude on this personal time, and registers its importance to her.
The main flaw I found in this novel is that the mystery itself was not very compelling, and its resolution ultimately relies on under-explored narrative strands centered on a criminal underworld which Drakenfeld only alludes to. As soon as Drakenfeld and Leana get to Tryum, the king's sister is brutally murdered in a locked temple. The cause of her death, and the growing pile of bodies as Drakenfeld pursues his investigation, is substantially less compelling than the world of Drakenfeld itself and the minor characters with whom Drakenfeld interacts. While I appreciate that this type of "locked room" mystery has some ancient antecedents, including the Old Testament's Book of Daniel, the real star of this novel is the world itself, not the mystery ostensibly driving the action—particularly because Drakenfeld himself does not startle the reader with his wit, social savvy, or astute political awareness. He is not a Sherlock Holmes, and the wry, fierce Leana is not a sword-wielding Watson. Instead, Drakenfeld impresses because of his stubborn idealism, his belief in the beautiful fiction of a peaceful and unified Vispasia, and his conviction that a clear head and steady thought can save the day.
This is not alterna-history noir. Tryum isn't ancient Gotham, classical New York, or sword-and-sandals Chicago, and its mean streets never feel that mean. I don't think Newton was going for that; Drakenfeld isn't even an alienated PI working outside the system to make Tryum a safer place for a family he no longer trusts himself to love. He doesn't have PTSD, a genre trope for hardboiled detective novels, and something one might expect as a result of a career as the Sun Chamber. In fact, Drakenfeld is not disillusioned with the system; Drakenfeld is the system. He's rigorously by the book, deeply invested fostering legislative justice, and his pedantic observation of details ultimately useless to his case reflect his love for the common folk of Tryum and the myth of peace in the Royal Vispasian Union itself. This is more like an ancient take on the police procedural, with its focus on administration, ancient forensics, and the minutiae of gathering evidence.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.
Maria Velazquez is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in contemporary media, as well as community-building through technology. She serves on the board of Lifting Voices, a District of Columbia-based nonprofit that helps young people in DC discover the power of creative writing, and blogs for The Hathor Legacy, a feminist pop culture blog. She recently received the Winnemore Dissertation Fellowship from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.