Dead Man in a Ditch is the second installment in Luke Arnold’s Fetch Phillips Archives and gosh, what a follow up. Set after the events of his debut novel The Last Smile in Sunder City (go here for my review), we revisit “Man for Hire” Fetch Phillips as he explores the mysterious, supposedly magical murder of an up and coming human businessman. Of course, unsurprisingly, all is not as it seems.
There’s something eminently likeable about Arnold’s protagonist as we revisit him and stand in his worn boots a second time. Fetch is a bleak, embittered man trying to scrape together a living and slowly repent for his part in the Coda – the event that stopped all magic in the world, and killed or crippled a lot of the magical creatures within it. The gruff outer exterior, mixing snark and biting realism to mask a vulnerability and sadness, is wonderful to read. So too is the way in which Arnold takes the chance to really deepen Fetch’s relationships with those around him; something which is explored a lot more in this book.
“Man”, she said, wrinkling up her nose. I see what you’re going for. You’re a Human. You’re male. […] But look at how you live. […] You’re a boy Fetch Phillips. A stupid boy, playing with things that aren’t yours.”
We see a lot more of the humans in this novel too, as the murder of one is put right at the centre of Fetch’s mission and the heavy, smoggy cloud of industry hangs over the city. There are a lot more questions too. Is magic truly back in Sunder? Could it have killed someone? And what lengths would magical creatures go to protect it? To protect themselves?
Whilst for me Dead Man in a Ditch could never quite be as punchy as my introduction to Fetch Phillips and the noir urban cityscape of Last Smile was, the writing is still as sharp as ever. There’s something in the way Arnold writes, whether it’s the dialogue or the descriptions of the world, that I really enjoy. It hammers home the noir feel of the book in a way that joyfully plays up the mish-mash of genres and really cements the world building.
“The Angel door was behind my desk. […] I pulled it open and the wind hit me in the face like a hired goon collecting on a loan”
That being said, the plot doesn’t go quite the way you might expect it to and I found myself thoroughly intrigued to see where Fetch’s investigations took him – both outside of the city and within it. For a start, there are a lot of changes to consider as – mild spoilers – guns are introduced in this novel (I got a very Pratchett-esque Ankh-Morpork vibe from this in all the best kind of ways). Fetch is also a man who changes. We explore his empathy with the humans in this novel a lot more, the conflict with magical creatures, and his desire and struggle to revitalise a dying city.
As with Last Smile, Arnold loves a good flashback, and this book is no exception. The depiction of Fetch’s relationship with his old mentor Hendricks was far and above my favourite part of the book. Arnold does a brilliant job of packing so much emotion into so few sentences, and a few choice scenes in the latter half of the book had me tearing up in a way I didn’t quite expect.
Sunder is a city of industry and soot, a city revitalised back to life, but a hungry one too, something really picked up by Dead Man in a Ditch. The cogs and wheels of progress turn and stop for no-one. The city is changing and moving again, and we – like Fetch – are swept along for the ride.
Dead Man in a Ditch is a vibrant follow up to The Last Smile in Sunder City. The dialogue and worldbuilding fizzes off the page, whilst the characters – old and new – are captivating and intriguing in their own right (watch out for the succubae pair). But Arnold also leaves a lot open at the end of the book, and I do hope there is a follow up. I was left with far too many questions, and not enough answers.
Definitely read this if you loved The Last Smile in Sunder City. You won’t be disappointed.