Murder in Cormyr

Author: Chet Williamson
Published: March 1996

I was looking forward to picking this one up. It marks an interesting detour from the usual themes of the Forgotten Realms, since Murder in Cormyr is less a fantasy novel and more a homage to classic twentieth-century detective stories that happens to be set in a fantasy world. Chet Williamson was a freelance writer who had once been nominated for an Edgar award (Best Short Story, 1985), so he was no stranger to the mystery genre, and I’m quite a fan of old pulp and noir detective novels. Could this be a perfect combination of two things I enjoy?

But my enthusiasm wavered when I noticed that both of the novels he wrote for TSR seemed like pastiches of existing works rather than original material. The first was 1994’s Mordenheim, a Ravenloft novel which sounds like a rehash of literary and cinematic Frankenstein tropes. (Perhaps I’ll get to the Ravenloft series someday and find out.) This, the second, is clearly imitating the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout, a famous series of American detective stories that started in the 1930s and ran for forty years. This could go either way: it might be a well-executed pastiche where the author is having fun and doing something new with someone else’s material, or it could be a lazy hack-job where the author dresses up recycled ideas in fantasy tropes for a paycheck. I suppose the only way to find out what we’re dealing with is to pick up the book and dig in.

This post may end up being shorter than usual, though. Since it’s a murder mystery, I’m much more hesitant about spoiling the plot than I would be with your average fantasy novel. The whole point of a whodunit, after all, is finding out who did it. But that means I’ll have to tread gingerly around the plot and characters, so there might not be as much that I can write about.

Plot

Since this is a mystery novel, the most important criterion for judging the plot is “Is the mystery any good?” My considered answer is “sort of.”

Before we can dive into Murder in Cormyr, we need to talk about its obvious inspiration so that we can see how much it’s stealing and how much it’s deviating from the template. The titular protagonist of the Nero Wolfe novels is a corpulent private detective, incredibly perceptive and eloquent but also misanthropic and reclusive, uninterested in much outside of good food, literature, and his orchid greenhouse. The narrator of these stories is his snarky assistant Archie Goodwin, a two-fisted stenographer who does the legwork of interviewing suspects and hunting down clues. Each story begins when some sort of murder happens and Wolfe is roped into investigating it, usually because someone hires him to find the culprit or clear their name. He sends Archie out on a variety of errands to gather information, often antagonizing the well-meaning but ineffectual police along the way, and finally brings all involved parties together in his study at the end to announce the murderer’s identity. In between, there are plenty of breaks for fine cuisine and orchid potting. For many cases he never leaves his New York brownstone; on the rare occasions when he does, he’s deeply agitated and uncomfortable.

In Murder in Cormyr we have Benelaius, a portly retired War Wizard who settles in Ghars, a sleepy Cormyrean village on the border between Cormyr and Sembia. He lives alone in a cottage on the outskirts of town with his books and a horde of uncannily intelligent cats. One night a young burglar bungles an attempt to rob him, and Jasper, the would-be thief, agrees to pay his debt to society by serving Benelaius as a manservant and assistant for a period of one year. Near the tail end of a year’s worth of cooking, cleaning, and academic tutelage, Jasper is longing to set out on the road and leave Ghars behind. But when a mysterious ghost and pair of grisly murders set the town in an uproar, Benelaius undertakes to solve the mystery and Jasper has to help him.

There are enough differences here to sell this as a pastiche rather than a rip-off, but the core plot is the same. Jasper is sent out on errands and investigations by Benelaius, where he uncovers lots of random clues which he interprets reasonably but incorrectly; the tension gets ratcheted up by further murders; finally, Benelaius gathers all the relevant characters at his cottage to unmask the killer — the classic Nero Wolfe story, in short. And like Wolfe, Benelaius isn’t shy about bending the truth and withholding or manufacturing evidence in order to trick a confession out of the guilty party, nor about giving the criminal an option to choose death on their own terms rather than face justice.

It’s not what you’d call a fair play mystery, where the reader has a shot at figuring out the murderer’s identity and motivations before the big reveal at the end. Benelaius and his colleague Lindavar keep some clues private and manufacture others, and some details about the murderer’s involvement only come out at the big reveal scene, so the reader ends up just as surprised as the other characters. You might be able to guess who it is and what the means were, but you don’t find out about the opportunity until later and the motive is never properly described. Still, many excellent mystery stories (including many of the Nero Wolfe ones) aren’t fair-play, and I’m not the sort of reader who gets uptight about “fairness” so as long as the story and characterization are fun.

Alas, some important plot points upon which the mystery hinges don’t make any sense. For instance, there’s a bit where people are signalling each other with lanterns from the Cormyrean and Sembian sides of the Vast Swamp. For those who don’t have a map of Faerûn handy, I’ll point out that there’s a reason why it’s called the Vast Swamp rather than the Thin Strip of Swamp. Given that it’s an oblong wetland about 60 miles long and 45 miles wide, how is someone holding up a little oil lantern on one side of it going to be seen from the other side? They’d need a pair of lighthouses instead. (Not to mention that it would be a much less Rube Goldberg-style plan if they’d just sent someone bearing a coded message into Sembia instead of all this faffing about with lanterns.) And Benelaius’ plan for framing the murderer relies on something happening to the murderer that goes unnoticed by all the other characters who are in the same room, which seems like a flimsy premise.

I appreciated the long denouement where, after the murderer is unmasked and meets his condign punishment, there’s another five chapters where Benelaius walks Jasper through the evidence he’d collected and the deductions he’d drawn from it. Even in plot-heavy genres like mystery characterization is still of paramount importance, and the novel desperately needed a chance to get Jasper and Benelaius in the same room again so they could interact with each other and demonstrate how they’ve been changed by the experience. I wish more novels would give themselves that much room to breathe.

Characters

I find myself wishing that the author had ripped off more from his inspiration because most of the elements he’s borrowed aren’t the important ones. The heart of the Nero Wolfe novels weren’t the plots but the characters, who were larger than life and played off each other beautifully. But as the mystery-solving genius at the centre of this plot, Benelaius doesn’t hold a candle to Nero Wolfe. He’s got some of the outward trappings — fat, sedentary, reads a lot, sends his assistant to do most of the work — but when I try to think of how to describe him, I can’t come up with a more involved description than “nice old man.” Wolfe was prickly, egotistical, finicky, and eccentric, and the bantering, slightly antagonistic relationship between him and Archie was what made the Nero Wolfe books tick. I could write an entire essay on his personality. Benelaius has no flaws, no discernible personality traits aside from “kind,” and he gets along so well with everyone that I found his scenes dull. Hell, he doesn’t even get much screen time — most of the novel is spent watching Jasper run his clue-gathering errands for him.

Furthermore, we’re told that this retired War Wizard is trying to live a simple life without the use of magic, but we never learn enough about him to tell whether it’s just a lifestyle choice or a deeply held principle. As a result, when he refuses to use magic to save Jasper’s life and his own at the end and does something incredibly risky instead, it seems like a colossally stupid and irresponsible move that nearly gets his assistant killed. Putting the “I’m not using magic any more” conflict front-and-centre would have been a good opportunity for character development, but it’s barely ever mentioned.

Fortunately, our narrator Jasper is a much more enjoyable character to watch. Archie, his archetype from the Nero Wolfe stories, is a cocky and self-assured professional, but Jasper is a young and inexperienced lad whose only experience with solving crimes comes from reading Sherlock Holmes-style detective stories. He has a keen eye for details but often makes mistakes, misses connections, or draws the wrong conclusions from facts. I found his enthusiasm and curiosity endearing, and he’s got much of Archie’s sardonic irreverence in his internal monologue.

By far the best part of the novel, though, is the supporting cast. Minor characters like the crazy old lady, the various jerkass innkeepers, or the peat-cutting gnome could easily have been lazy stock characters, but the author takes the time to give them vivid personalities and distinguishing characteristics. It goes a long way towards selling Ghars as a real town full of real people rather than a stage backdrop for our characters to act in.

The characterization isn’t evenly distributed, though, and some of it would have been better spent on the characters who are relevant to the plot. By the end of the novel our detectives have saved the entire town of Ghars from annihilation. But the villain’s motivation for doing something so drastic that it would cause the deaths of hundreds of people is never fleshed out, so it feels like it comes out of nowhere. The last-minute upgrade from “cowardly villain” to “genocidal maniac” needs to be supported somehow in order to feel believable, but all we’re told is “I guess he was bitter or something.” It’s a cop-out that saps some of the enjoyment from the climactic reveal.

Themes

I’m not sure that I can discern any significant themes here. I suppose there’s Jasper’s reverse-coming-of-age arc where he starts off anxious to leave Ghars and make his own way in the world, but changes his mind at the end and decides to stay with Benelaius. But it’s only brought up at the beginning and end and is ignored for the rest of the book, so I wouldn’t call it a theme. There’s Benelaius’ “practical knowledge is better than magic” philosophy, but as I pointed out earlier, it gets precious little screen time. “Don’t mess with ghosts” is the closest we get to a consistent theme throughout.

Writing

I quite enjoyed the writing in this book. It may be a pastiche of a better author’s style, but it’s competently executed on the whole and it’s always refreshing to see a Forgotten Realms writer steal from an author who isn’t Tolkien. Jasper’s first-person narration is verbose and discursive, full of fifty-cent words and random asides — a far cry from Archie Goodwin’s snub-nosed storytelling. It’s packed with colourful details that make the world feel alive. The author, for all that he’d never had anything to do with the Forgotten Realms or D&D before, does a good job of capturing the tenor of life in a sleepy Cormyrean village: the rhythm of daily routine, the relationships between the inhabitants, the forbidding feel of the frontier landscape.

He goes overboard on the pastiche, of course. Some bits feel like they were lifted word-for-word from a Nero Wolfe novel with only the names changed:

“Good night, Jasper,” the wizard said, putting his head back in his easy chair and closing his eyes.
My bluff had not worked. “Master?” I said.
“Mmm?”
“Don’t you want to hear about the ghost?”
He opened one eye. “If you wish to tell me.” For Benelaius, opening that eye would be akin to you or me jumping up and down in anticipation.

It shares the Nero Wolfe novels’ fascination with the food the characters eat, and even slips in an outright reference to the novel Too Many Cooks: [1]

I heard Lindavar and Benelaius moving about upstairs while I brewed a large pot of tea and prepared a sumptuous feast of eggs, smoked salmon, elven bread, and the special sausages that Benelaius adores.

And some bits verge on outright parody, which made me grin but doesn’t do any favours for the serious tone of the murder mystery or the reader’s suspension of disbelief:

“Doctor Braum, as you examine the body — and the head — what do you determine to be the cause of Dovo’s death?”
Braum frowned in confusion.
“Well, it’s difficult to live when your head and body are in two different places.”
“Indeed. But how was the fatal blow struck?”
“Hard?” suggested Captain Flim.

The mood is spoiled by some minor twentieth-century anachronisms. Among others, there’s a mention of ribbon-cutting ceremonies to open stores, there’s a public lending library in town complete with shushing librarian, and Benelaius has a laboratory complete with centrifuge which Lindavar uses to do chemical analysis of a substance they find. They’re not major immersion-destroying things, but they collectively give the impression that this is less of a medieval murder mystery and more of a modern murder mystery transposed into a medieval setting.

Conclusion

Grade: B–

It’s been a long time since I read a Realms novel that I found myself looking forward to picking up again each time I put it down. I wouldn’t say that Murder in Cormyr is an unqualified success, mind you — it’s derivative, some of the characterization is weak, the mystery plot could use some work, and the anachronistic elements are distracting. But it’s breezy and fun and not at all a slog to read, so it’s a delightful change of pace from some of the dreck we’ve waded through lately. I’m going to give it a B– out of sheer relief, and I’m hoping that this isn’t the only 1996 novel which departs from the usual “heroic quest” approach to try interesting new experiments.

Some reviews write themselves — there are interesting parallels to other books or to real-world events, or there’s something instructional about the way the book succeeds or fails that I can point out, or there’s an interesting critical perspective to approach the book from. But some reviews are hard work, and it’s not necessarily because the book is bad. This one is a book that was fun to read but difficult to write up afterwards because there’s just not a lot to say about it: it’s entertaining but not very deep, and the mystery elements make it hard to talk much about the plot without spoiling it mercilessly. Hopefully the forthcoming Elaine Cunningham novel will give me more to work with.

Footnotes

[1] I suspect some of the names were also inspired by the source material. Mayella is a short hop from Maryella, a character from the novella “Cordially Invited to Meet Death,” and there are at least two Jaspers in the Nero Wolfe corpus. But then, given how many scores of characters have featured in the dozens of Nero Wolfe novels, it could also be mere coincidence.

4 Replies to “Murder in Cormyr

  1. > But the villain’s motivation for doing something so drastic that it would cause the deaths of hundreds of people is never fleshed out, so it feels like it comes out of nowhere. The last-minute upgrade from “cowardly villain” to “genocidal maniac” needs to be supported somehow in order to feel believable, but all we’re told is “I guess he was bitter or something.”

    Third-rate universes like the Realms and the Marvel movies have that in common, sadly. The only way they can think of raising the stakes is by threatening to kill a lot of redshirts.

    1. Quite right! It’s common to much bad writing, I think, regardless of universe. The notion is that if one death is dramatic, then a million deaths is a million times more dramatic, when in fact it’s the opposite. A million deaths is just a big number, and if one doesn’t have some sort of narrative connection to some of the individuals affected then one’s brain isn’t capable of grasping the scope of the tragedy.

      For Murder in Cormyr, this plot point would have worked much better if the murderer had conspired to poison their actual targets instead of poisoning the entire town to get to them. Same outcome, but it would have been much more believable that the murderer would be capable of doing it.

  2. -How much of a role does magic play in this book? At least one 2nd Edition module “Murder Most Magical” in the Four From Cormyr is a locked room mystery wherein a nobleman is seemingly murdered alone in his bedroom. Magic is critical both to the murder plot and to the kidnapping plot that preceded it. Magic is not intended to be a “game breaker” (in fact, the module outright says that a detect lie spell will fail against the two masterminds of the plot, although it can still work on their cronies) but several spells can offer additional clues. Clever players might not even need magic to solve the mystery at all, instead using the real-world methods of spotting inconsistencies in suspects’ stories, going back to review old evidence that has a new context or realizing that the absence of evidence could be just as important as anything they actually find (how did the nobleman get shanked in the back when his body’s position indicates that he was looking in the mirror, the door is locked from the inside and there’s no sign that anyone tried to pick it?)

    TL;DR: How do you keep enchantment or divination spells from completely derailing the mystery?

    -Magic and other supernatural abilities (e.g. superhero powers) offer a lot of intriguing possibilities for everything from spy stories to mysteries to thrillers. In stories like “The Hound Of The Baskervilles” or “The Adventure Of The Devil’s Foot”, Sherlock Holmes dismisses the idea of supernatural happenings, but if these were happening in a D&D setting then everything from demons to lycanthropes to the undead all become very real possibilities. Everything from potions of gaseous form to periapts of proof against poison could be potential tools for both murderers and investigators.

    -Mysteries that rely on contrived coincidences or even just have too many moving parts to all work properly are one of my biggest pet peeves as a reader. I’ve been irritated by more than one Batman comic where the plot depends on characters being borderline psychic in their ability to predict how people will react, or for everything to work exactly as expected, and all the supporting characters reacting just as expected.

    It just strains disbelief too much for me.

    1. Magic plays almost no role in this book; nobody casts any spells or busts out any magic items. I expect that’s what Benelaius’ “I’ve decided to quit being a wizard” character quirk was for: to explain why he doesn’t say “Hey, I’ve got some divination spells” and solve the plot immediately. There are some supernatural elements involving the undead, but they’re not integral to the plot. Like I said, it’s less of a fantasy murder mystery and more of a twentieth-century murder mystery transposed into a fantasy setting.

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