Friday, April 2, 2010

Burn Me Deadly

After the success of Alex Bledsoe's The Sword-Edged Blonde (, I had some fairly large expectations for the sequel. Charmed as I was not only with the cross-genre play but with the well-written protagonist, I hoped for more of the same and perhaps some new twists in Burn Me Deadly. What the new book delivers, however, is something subtly different and yet still rather compelling.

I suppose it is something of a truism that if book one breaks new ground, then there's not so much new ground to break in book two. And while I know that in my head, my heart didn't seem to recognize it or apply it to Burn Me Deadly. I wanted more of the fertile interplay between the noir genre and heroic fantasy, and I admit to being a little disappointed as I set down the book—it was not there at the same level it had been for the first book. But as I thought about it in more detail, I realized that Bledsoe is performing a real melding here, and that if he kept using the heroic fantasy as his framework it would eventually obscure the noir aspects. Since The Sword-Edged Blonde told a story that involved the biggest tropes of heroic fantasy—really, Eddie LaCrosse interacts with gods!—we also have to recognize that the life of a shamus/sword jockey more often consists of mundane cases resolved not with leaps of intuition or deific intervention, but by old-fashioned footwork. And that's what Burn Me Deadly delivers. The story is still set in a fairly medieval world, but we don't get to see as much of it this time around, since LaCrosse doesn't travel very far from his home. But we do get to see Eddie interact with his friends and resources, which is ultimately what any ongoing noir series relies on: the cases come and go, but the cast of repeated characters grows into fully rounded persons.

The story begins with Eddie attempting to rescue a young woman he stumbles across in the woods as he rides home after his latest case. His attempt fails, and Eddie finds himself the victim of horrific assault beside the corpse of the young woman he tried to save. After he is able to rescue himself, he throws himself at solving the crimes. As he follows the few clues he has, the local constable Gary tries to dissuade him from getting too involved and a captain in the king's guard tries to throw him off the trail completely. Eddie's response is typical of the noir protagonist: it only compels him to try that much harder. And when more bodies start piling up and an ancient dragon cult seems to be involved, Eddie just grows that much more determined to figure it out.

To be honest, I wanted to be angry at the "mystery" aspect of the story. As it went along, it seemed terribly obvious who the villains were, but my supposed detective skills were based on way too many TV shows and movies where the conclusions generally are obvious and somewhat trite. It's a testament to Bledsoe's writing chops that the resolution and revelations were more often a surprise than not, teasing the reader with the obvious and then surprising in the details. Even more compelling to me was that such manipulation gave me cause to spend time thinking about what makes the genres what they are and how Burn Me Deadly plays with those expectations.

Truly, though, the real joy of this novel is the development of Eddie's voice and the growing cast of regulars. We discover that Eddie and the woman he met at the end of The Sword-Edged Blonde are now lovers, and the interaction between he and Liz is powerful in its authentic feel. This is what two confident and emotionally stable people are supposed to sound like in a relationship, no matter the setting. And this is not to say that they do not have their issues, but they deal with them humanly and fairly appropriately, indicating their maturity, even when they recognize they each have growing still to do.

There is also the bar owner Angelina, who remains fairly enigmatic though more and more trusted. She offers relief for the reader when the action gets tough. She has acerbic wit—as any barkeep worth their salt does in a noir novel—but she begins to grow into something more than a cliché, specifically because of her obvious affection for Eddie and because of hints she lets drop and another big one that Eddie uncovers as he chases the murderers. She nearly steals every scene she is in, and I look forward to her development over what I hope will be a prolonged series. Her main waitress, Callie, is also a delight, growing as she does from well-endowed dimwit into something much more interesting and a formidable force on her own.

There are new characters as well, such as Doug the constable who devoutly pursues getting paid for doing the least amount of work possible, and the owner of the bar across town, Angelina's primary competitor. But most interesting is the introduction of a nemesis for Eddie, a local crime lord who is tangentially involved with the activities of Burn Me Deadly but who promises to be a thorn in Eddie's side for a long time to come.

The result is a deceptively quick read—like a lot of mysteries Burn Me Deadly doesn't feel like it has a lot of intellectual heft. But within it, there are more things going on than in a typical "beach read"; Bledsoe continues to play with genre expectations, but in a more subdued manner than before, and he is growing a stable of interesting characters that compel the reader to learn more about them. To be sure, the novel can be read in a cursory surface sort of way, but a little examination reveals the promise of more good things to come. And, a tribute to his craft, Bledsoe has made me care to learn more about these people and their world.

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