I’ve not been doing well with reading, recently. Mired in a Soviet monolith of an epic, I’ve been trying to sneak in a few nostalgic comfort-reads and the like, but even that hasn’t been entirely successful (the penultimate Discworld novel, in particular, is easy to read, yet also disheartening). So I turned once more to Simon Green’s Hawk and Fisher novels – I haven’t read this particular one before, but they’re the kind of thing you know is going to be unchallenging and mildly entertaining. I had a little while before I needed to sleep, this being a weekend, and so I thought I’d make a start on Wolf in the Fold.
Later, at an ungodly hour of the morning, I realised I’d accidentally read the entire novel in one sitting. True, it’s under 200 pages so it barely counts as a novel, but still – I haven’t done that in a while. Turns out, Wolf in the Fold is actually… well, kind of good.
Let’s take a step back. Wolf in the Fold is the fourth in a series of novels by Simon Green following two married cops, Hawk and Fisher, as they go about importing the cliché plots of detective novels into the cliché setting of a generic fantasy city, accompanied by a great deal of semi-witty, sardonic narration. Think Terry Pratchett’s City Watch novels, only without the genius.
This, however, is the best so far (I haven’t read the final two yet). After a little set-up, Wolf in the Fold adopts (as the characters themselves note) the same structure as the first in the series, Hawk and Fisher: a country house murder mystery. Hawk and Fisher find themselves trapped in an aristocrat’s house, along with the traditional assortment of suspicious house guests and at least one dead body.
The set-up, as it has been every time, is weak: while Green seems at home with the rhythms and language of the English detective story, he seems much less comfortable with the tropes of the American police drama that form the background for Hawk and Fisher’s life outside the confines of each specific case – there’s a combination of laziness of execution and incoherence of concept in the way high fantasy and third-rate cop show are mashed together. Fortunately, however, that’s all dealt with briefly, and once we’re in the real plot, it’s all much smoother. It’s like… well, it’s like nothing so much as a nice episode of Poirot.
As in Poirot episodes, the assorted suspects/victims aren’t given much genuine characterisation – rather, they are striking caricatures (equipped with mumblingly polite and passive-aggressively aristocratic English dialogue) who hold up under scrutiny just long enough to get us to the big reveal. The flaws of the original Hawk and Fisher are still present here: minimal characterisation, half-hearted worldbuilding, and an overly neat ending, which in this case feels more or less random in timing (ah-ha! now I shall reveal myself and my dastardly plans!!!), rather than in any way organic. What’s more, this novel lacks the original’s genuinely clever solution, making it less like a cunning locked-room mystery and more like a… well, a typical episode of Poirot, in which everyone looks shifty but only one (well, usually one) randomly-selected character will actually turn out to be the killer.
And yet, it’s overall a better book. Why? Because, like a good episode of Poirot, it’s constructed well enough that you don’t have time to dwell on how superficial it is.
All the elements are here, and they work well together: the shock twists (oh no, a dead body! but whose!?), the peril (will they catch the killer before they strike again!? could the detectives themselves be the next victims!?), the scenes that combine light psychological excavation with infodumping banter as people sit around going slightly peculiar under the tension of mutual suspicion (anyone of us could be the murderer!? how do we know it’s not YOU!?), the interrogations (done much more subtly here than in Hawk and Fisher, in part because of greater skill and in part because of a very well-chosen plot-gimmick), the brief pre-advert-break scenes where we depart from the normal POV to see just enough of what each character is doing/thinking to find them suspicious but not enough to condemn or exonerate any of them, and a decent number of sequences of of light action (the usual confrontations and some energetic running up and down stairs).
As you can tell from my description, everything here is something you’ve seen before, if not usually in the environs of fantasy. And I won’t pretend it’s the best-ever execution of these ideas – it doesn’t even try to be. What it is, however, is a genuinely compelling, thoroughly fun little story. It’s not like competing in the Olympics – it’s the narrative equivalent of a light jog in a pleasant little park with an old friend. You feel a little out of breath, and quite satisfied when you’re finished, and you’ve really rather enjoyed your time, even if you weren’t particularly challenged, and may not feel a need to record every detail of the occasion for posterity. In particular, once the story gets going, the author does a good job of juggling everything smoothly in order to keep the pace from slacking – it isn’t a thriller, but it is a page-turner. Well, as I said, I accidentally read it in one sitting. Oh OK then, just one more chapter…
Another reason, it should be said, why the murder mystery works well, while the background cop show doesn’t, is the way that fantasy is integrated into the story. In the background show, it’s just… there. They’re cops, but there are also wizards wandering around (including among the cops). It doesn’t really make sense that it’s there (how many sorcerors would really bother to work for the police department?). Similarly, it doesn’t really make sense that there’d be a pseudo-modern, well-resourced police department in a pseudo-mediaeval fantasy city… who’s paying for them? But in the case of the murder mystery itself, it works well, because the fantasy elements are central in setting up a very interesting scenario for the mystery, which would be much harder to establish in a strictly ‘realist’ novel. [in that respect, in how it plays with genre as an excuse to set up an interesting scenario, it plays almost more like SF than like fantasy]. To that extent, it’s a telling demonstration for fantasy novelists of how genre elements can be used to create, rather than undermine, scenarios – it uses the impossible to create problems, but lets ordinary people solve them.
Finally, it should be said that both the characte work and the writing are improved from earlier installments. It’s not a radical change – they were solidly workmanlike before, and they’re hardly a masterpiece now – but I had the sense throughout that everything was being done just a bit more adroitly than in previous volumes. In particular, the return of the charmingly, depressingly inebriated Lord Sinclair is a highlight, bringing both some enjoyable (and, in the manner of a magician’s trick, distracting) humour and an effective and realistic element of melancholy to procedings.
The result is a novel that is far from a masterpiece, largely because it doesn’t try to be one. Indeed, the most frustrating thing about the novel may be its timidity, its own low expectations for itself – its successes suggest that Green may be an author of genuine talent, while its failures are primarily failures of ambition, or failures to overcome unnecessarily high hurdles the author has created for himself. Why did he have to start from such an unpromising, half-baked worldbuilding position? Why did he have to try to do everything he wanted to do in under 200 pages? He has more than enough material here, and more than enough ability, to have turned this into a really intense novel of twice this wordcount, giving us more of the psychology, and more red herrings, and more atmospheric passages, or just rushing less over the initial set-up chapters. As it is, everything sort of works, once things get going properly, but nothing has quite enough time or attention paid to it to work as well as you might want it to.
And yet, if it isn’t a masterpiece, that doesn’t stop it from being a notably good read. You may not like what it does, but if you do, it does it well. It kept me wanting to know more, wanting to see what happened next, and wishing it had been longer, the whole time I was reading it, and it kept me turning the pages quickly enough that I read it all in one sitting. I wish more novels could accomplish all that!
Adrenaline: 4/5. As I say above, this isn’t a thriller – it’s a steady boil, punctuated by brief action scenes, and the protagonists never really feel in mortal danger. But it’s paced well, there’s tension and mystery, and there’s plenty of incident.
Emotion: 2/5. These ‘Hawk and Fisher’ novels are pretty dry affairs, emotionally – the reader is directed more to what happens and why than to what one should feel about it. But the moments of genuine sentiment drag it up from the lowest score.
Thought: 3/5. The combination of familiar tropes and the lack of any really clever puzzle – this is Poirot, not Jonathan Creek – mean my mind wasn’t exactly racing throughout. But it’s a decent mystery, effectively unfolded, which kept me intellectually engaged and curious throughout.
Beauty: 3/5. There are a few elegant speeches, but not much else.
Craft: 3/5. Frustrating, because the bits that really work are counterbalanced by bits where I’m not sure he was really trying.
Endearingness: 3/5. Too light, and too many minor frustrations, to make this a book I’ll be desparate to re-read – but it’s a book that, conversely, I’ve no doubt I will re-read, probably repeatedly. Because sometimes, light and comfortable but also page-turning is exactly what you need.
Originality: 2/5. This is intentionally a mash-up of clichés; the originality, and the unpredictability, comes from how they’re combined, but there’s nothing strikingly novel even about that.
OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. Yes, this is the best of the four so far, and it’s almost into outright ‘Good’ territory… but not quite. This isn’t going to change anybody’s mind about its (sub)genre, and it won’t appear on many best-of-all-time lists even within its genre. What it can do, however, is provide a very pleasant few hours for readers who are in the market for what it’s offering. Including, it turns out, me.