City of Wolves is a novella from Willow Palecek. It follows the wonderfully named Alexander Drake, a private investigator swimming in a sea of vice, iniquity and the occasional smidge of magic.
The world of City of Wolves is drawn in carefully minimalist strokes.
There’s enough here to engage the reader, and get their mind working, but the prose doesn’t carry any extraneous detail. The narrative occurs in and around Lupenwald, the titular City of Wolves – and it’s a city of several parts. There’s a nobility here, with a sense of class privilege and corruption in place. There’s law enforcement ready to turn a blind eye when crimes impact on their masters. Then there’s dens of vice, where the law, if it does not exactly fear to tread, certainly treads carefully. It’s a city that seems to have stark divides along social lines, but also where money can buy you anything, from bread, to swords, to silence. There’s a sense of a wider political context here too. A civil war has resulted in a reunified, but still fractious kingdom. This leaves a scent of disorder wafting through the air.
If the wider world evokes Chandler, the central strand of the narrative has hints of Christie. There’s a coziness of structure, if not of mood, as our protagonist digs into a murder – interviewing witnesses, combing flowerbeds for evidence, and making some rather convincing conclusions. If the world is the backdrop to the murder, this view of a self-centred, fractious nobility in a sprawling country pile too small for all of them – that’s the backdrop to the story. It’s sufficiently well drawn that you’re able to fill in the blanks yourself with familiar elements – but distinct enough to make the world feel unique.
The characters get very similar treatment. I would have rather liked to spend more time with all of them, if I’m honest. Drake fills the role of world-weary investigator well, and there’s some hints of his past peppered throughout the dialogue. He’s also clearly a man with a certain type of connections. There’s intelligence on display here too, though perhaps he’s a bit too used to being the smartest person in the room. Still, there’s a life, a heft to Drake, and I’d quite like to spend some more time in his company.
The remaining cast don’t fare as well, sadly. There’s a wonderful turn from a police Inspector with a firm dislike of private investigators and an aura of knowing on which side his bread is buttered. But beyond that, there’s a variety of foppish noble scions, none of whom stand out particularly. Don’t get me wrong, they do the job of driving the plot, serving as distractions and suspects – but it would be nice to have the opportunity to see more of them.
The plot – well, it’s a nifty murder mystery, with supernatural elements. These are always tricky to pull off, I think. This time it succeeds because the story sticks to its own internal logic for the supernatural elements – and throws in others we’re more familiar with – Holmesian style footprints in the garden, rifle fire from concealed glades, missing items of clothing. It’s all delightfully convoluted, the reality wrapped in red herring after enigma. The conclusion makes sense, and carries a nice sting in the tail as well. As a mystery, it’s entertaining, and the fantasy elements give it a good flavour.
Worth reading? If you’re into the fantasy-mystery space, then this may be for you. It’s nice to see this area seeing a bit of a revival; this novella will fit happily alongside the Maradaine Constabulary and Amra Thetys, and serves as a tautly intriguing introduction to characters and a world that I hope to see more of.