Wolf in the Fold, by Simon Green

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.

5 thoughts on “Wolf in the Fold, by Simon Green

  1. Hans-Werner Hatting says:

    The Soviet thing you’e reading is Тихий Дон, right?

  2. Yes. Well, “reading” is a better term. To be fair, I’m almost halfway through. To be honest, I still… don’t get the point? Other than the moral message, “life is shit”.

    One thing that’s amusing me is how much it’s basically a grimdark epic fantasy novel.

  3. To clarify: if you take any paragraph, any page, any chapter, Sholokov is often doing interesting things. But putting them together, there’s little sense of a narrative, or even a thematic or atmospheric arc. He just keeps giving us the same things: a list of things (killings, rapes, murders, murder-rapes, etc) that happen, some banal conversation, a few passages about how pretty the trees are, and long elegaic asides about how everybody’s dead and/or miserable. Individually OK, but I’m not yet understanding why we need 1400 pages of this stuff, all jumbled together in a seemingly random order. There was a period there where we were getting into some revolution/counterrevolution stuff, with politics and ideology and, you know, a plot, but he seems to have backed off from that now…

    But, I’ll persevere!

  4. @lynnsbooks says:

    So, can this be read without having read the prior books in series?
    Lynn 😀

  5. Good question. I think so, yes, so long as one isn’t a perfectionist. It tries to give at least minimally sketched out background in case you’re new to the characters and setting – and to be honest, the characters and setting don’t need that much description anyway. You’ll miss a little continuity, but nothing essential. To further strain my running analogy, it’s probably a bit like watching a random Poirot – you’ll very quickly work out that Ms Lemon is Poirot’s secretary, and a general gist of their relationship, and sure, if you’d watched the previous episodes some bits would be funnier or more moving because you know the characters, but none of that is really necessary, per se.

    Perversely, the most ‘significant’ references here are to a novel that’s NOT part of this series – throughout the first four books, Green’s been teasing that the protagonists are actually a pair of characters from a different novel, who have adopted new names and identities and moved to a new location, but never outright said it; he doesn’t say it in this novel either, but it’s clearer than ever. However, Green would have known that many readers wouldn’t have read that earlier novel, so it’s played as mysterious hints rather than essential information. Apparently one of the characters here is also a visitor from another of Green’s series (set in a different world entirely), but I didn’t know that and it doesn’t really matter.

    If you are thinking of reading it – and I wouldn’t say you need to rush out and buy it, but if you said you were going to read it I wouldn’t discourage you – a brief intro might be in order….

    There are six novels about Hawk and Fisher (under that name). They are grizzled veteran (by fantasy standards, so maybe 30s) cops in a standard high-fantasy city (Lankhmar, Waterdeep, early-novels Ankh-Morpork, etc), with the usual sorcerors, demons, minor godlings, massive class disparities, and incomprehensible party politics (the upper class are called The Quality).

    The first three are: “Hawk and Fisher” (better mystery, but rougher execution), “Winner Takes All” (the worst of the bunch so far), and “The God Killer” (the weirdest by far and most interesting of the ones I’ve read, though a bit disjointed – the murder victim is a god). These are collected in an omnibus called “Swords of Haven”.

    You may find it hard to actually find “Wolf in the Fold” by itself. However, it still seems easily available in an omnibus called “Guards of Haven”. Each novel’s only ~200 pages, so it’s still a a very manageable volume. And a slightly implausible 4.11 stars on Goodreads, although it’s probably obscure enough by now that its readership is self-selecting…

    [and apparently “Wolf in the Fold” has also been published as “The Vengeance of a Lonely Man”, and the omnibus has also been published as “Fear and Loathing in Haven”. But I can’t swear to that.]

    I’d be interested to hear your opinion if you do read it, because you read a lot more modern fantasy than I do, and it would be interesting to see how you think it compares. In particular, I get the sense that this sort of thing (middlebrow light fantasy that lots of people liked but that never sold huge numbers so far as I’m aware) would probably be entered into your self-published fantasy competition these days…

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