Author: Richard Meyers
Published: October 1996
Another weird genre mash-up rears its misshapen head! This is the second in a series of three novels where TSR commissioned experienced mystery writers to write mystery novels set in their worlds. The first was the acceptable Murder in Cormyr; the third, Murder in Tarsis, is a late Dragonlance novel that I’ll hopefully never get to. The author that TSR found for this one was the recipient of two Edgar award nominations, the prestigious Oscars for mystery fiction — but for the “biographical work” category, having written a couple of non-fiction histories about television adaptations of mystery novels. Will intimate familiarity with the genre translate into readable, engaging fiction? I have my doubts, since good mystery writing is difficult to do well, but let’s dive in and see.
This novel is set in far-off Halruaa, a magical land far to the south of the Heartlands that’s never been explored in fiction before. It seems like the author is making extra work for himself by having to introduce a brand-new setting as well as the characters and plot, but I’m always excited to see novels tackle interesting new places. Alas, the setting work doesn’t particularly land for me. The author has made an effort to add some fantastical locations — the deck of a magical airship, a magical castle of illusions, etc. — but the actual culture of the place doesn’t feel particularly exotic or unusual. We barely see anything of what life is like for the inhabitants of Lallor, the city where the novel takes place, and don’t get a sense of customs or social mores that would make it stand out from the usual “fantasy kingdom” stereotype.
As I pointed out in my review of Murder in Cormyr, the primary criterion for judging a mystery novel is “Is the mystery any good?” Well… let’s just say that writing a mystery story is a hell of a lot harder than writing about mystery stories, and the author’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject hasn’t saved him from coming up with a convoluted plot where events don’t seem to flow naturally, packed with contrivances and improbable insights. It’s not an unmitigated disaster, but around the halfway mark I gave up on trying to keep the mystery elements straight and started reading it as I would any other novel. Ordinarily I would be circumspect about not spoiling the mystery aspects of the plot, but it’s not a compelling enough story to justify stepping carefully around it for the rest of the review.
In the town of Merrickarta , local scoundrel Pryce Covington makes a decent living as a runner of odd jobs. But a job offer from a disreputable business associate leads him to the Halruaan city of Lallor, where he finds the corpses of his associate and some other mysterious person outside the city walls. He’s reluctantly dragged into having to solve the mystery due to a contrived case of mistaken identity, where everyone mistakes him for a great hero and he has to play along. Apparently a big-shot wizard in town told everyone that his illustrious apprentice and hand-picked successor, the great Darlington Blade, would be showing up soon. Nobody knows what he looks like, but every single person in the entire city knows what the clasp of his cloak is supposed to look like and recognizes him based on that. When Covington steals the cloak off of the mysterious dead man, everyone in Lallor assumes that he’s the famous mage and adventurer whom they’ve heard so much about and treats him like royalty.
No, I don’t get it either.
Anyhow, without blowing his cover as “Darlington Blade,” Covington has to deduce the identity of both the victim and his killer, while also figuring out what happened to the wizard whose apprentice he’s supposed to be. The first half of the plot can only be described as “very slow.” He encounters a number of situations where his cover is tested, each of which he escapes via fast talking or happenstance. Some tiny details from these scenes are brought up later as evidence for various plot points, but overall it’s a slog that should have been trimmed down. There are some sitcom-worthy misunderstandings that come out of nowhere instead of being integrated into the plot, like the scene where random people keep inconveniently recognizing him at a bar. (There are only so many times that you can play the “someone realizes he’s not the person he’s pretending to be” card in a single scene before it loses all tension, and that number is definitely less than three.) The means by which he escapes these situations often come out of nowhere, like the cloak clasp that turns out to be enchanted in such a way that people are fooled into thinking he’s got magical powers, or require everyone else in the scene to be unbelievably credulous, like the scene where Gheevy accuses him of not being Darlington Blade in a crowded room and Covington spouts a bunch of suspicious-sounding flim-flam in response.
Things get back on the rails in the second half where, after the traditional Chandleresque “detective gets tricked and blackjacked” scene, Covington gets some agency and seems to be in some actual peril. But the mystery aspects are still a mess. Our detective is able to remember trivial details of previous scenes that turn out to be crucial clues, correctly intuit the motivations of people he’s never met and has barely any knowledge of, then reveal another character’s secret identity without any setup or explanation for how he knew it. Perhaps it’s supposed to make him look clever, but it just looks like the author’s been passing him notes. At the end, instead of arranging for the badass inquisitrixes of Mystra to arrest the dangerous culprit, he goes to a remote place with the murderer and accuses him there as part of a convoluted scheme to deal with the villain without blowing his own cover. As a result, two of his friends are killed and he’s only saved at the last moment by the surprise intervention of a deus ex machina. Great job there, pal. You really thought that one through.
I’m of two minds about Pryce, the protagonist. On the one hand, he’s jam-packed with informed attributes, where his initial character description bears no resemblance to the person we spend the rest of the book with. We’re told up front how lazy he is, that all he wants out of life is comfort and a cushy job, but then he spends the rest of the novel as an energetic, dynamic, hyper-competent detective who doesn’t display an iota of laziness. In the end, he decides to live a complicated double life under the constant threat of discovery, and it sounds like it will be exhausting. We’re told how much he fears magic and hates mages, but he then spends the rest of the book rubbing shoulders with various mages and doesn’t evince any hostility or magic-related distrust towards them. He’s ostensibly clever, but the author will occasionally have him act like a dope at moments when it would be amusing. I don’t get why the author would spend so much time setting up backstory and character traits for him, then ignore them for the rest of the novel.
But while the protagonist we get isn’t the one we were initially sold, he’s at least a decent character with a bit of an arc from anti-hero to hero. He starts off as a coward who wants to escape the situation or find a way to exploit it, but gradually becomes emotionally invested in sticking around and solving the case. By the end, he owns his stolen identity as a hero and finds his inner bravery. It’s a bit straightforward and on-the-nose, but I appreciate the effort the author put into characterizing him. Even if it’s awkwardly handled, it’s still far better than not bothering at all.
His love interest Dearlyn, the daughter of the wizard whose apprentice Pryce is pretending to be, feels like a hole in the book where a person should have been. The idea is that she resents Darlington Blade for cheating her out of her inheritance, but slowly defrosts over the course of the story as she works with him to solve her father’s murder. But it’s hard to believe in her as a character or get invested in the potential romantic relationship when she never really does anything. He has all the ideas and does all the work, and her role is to follow him around and occasionally misconstrue things. Her sole contribution to the plot is during the only really clever bit of the mystery, a deception where Covington accuses her in public of being the murderer in order to make the real murderer think he’s safe, but that doesn’t require any agency on her part. Hell, if she’d been the murderer, at least it would have meant she’d accomplished something herself.
Spoilers ahoy! (But you probably don’t care.) The murderer turns out to be Pryce’s sidekick Gheevy, a derro  who’s infiltrated Halruaan society by disguising himself as a halfling. The disguise thing isn’t set up at all and comes out of nowhere at the end, and his motive boils down to “because I’m an absolute dick.” But the author does a reasonably good job laying out the clues that point to him, so it doesn’t feel like a complete ass-pull. An attentive reader might notice, however, that he gets far more screen time and attention than any other character besides the protagonist, which is always a sign of a potential murderer in amateur mystery stories.
The side characters are mostly simple one-note sketches — boring barkeep, sexy waitress, uptight police inspector, unscrupulous merchant, et cetera. The author tries to set some of them up as potential suspects for the murders, but if we don’t have any idea who they are or what they want, why would we ever believe that they’d be relevant to the plot? It’s important to any story that the cast should all have clear motivations and well-defined personalities, but it’s especially crucial for mysteries. When the author pays little attention to developing a character, it’s a clear sign to the reader that they’re nothing more than red herrings.
I would have been annoyed by the book’s racist-by-modern-standards ending, where a member of an evil race (“a heritage that wished only to see humans sadistically killed and to pervert knowledge to its own dark desires”) is implied to be inherently irredeemable, were it not for the presence of a handful of monstrous characters who break the stereotype by going to great lengths to aid the protagonist. They have a bit of a “the author flipped through the Monster Manual and picked out a handful of random monsters” vibe, rather than making sense for the setting, and one of them isn’t narratively essential and should have been cut, but they get more characterization than the humans and they give the protagonist a chance to demonstrate his humanity when he treats them with compassion.
Not much, to be honest. There’s a bit of a running theme about how over-reliance on magic makes you stupid, where a mundane con artist is able to think circles around the magic-dependent people of Lallor, but it’s not the main thrust of the story and not particularly emphasized. It’s mostly just a series of things happening without a clear through-line in either story or theme.
It’s such a hot mess, y’all.
The narrator has a distinct voice with a dry, British sort of feel to it. (The protagonist is named “Pryce Covington,” for heaven’s sake!) But the author leans too heavily into it, creating ornate, barnacled sentences dripping with excess description and explanations. That alone isn’t enough to ruin it, but it’s just enough to be continually irritating:
Her sudden appearance made Pryce aware that the splendid architecture had distracted him from the well-mannered, well-dressed people who went about their everyday business on the wide, well-maintained streets.
Come on, mate, you’re not getting paid by the adjective here. Occasionally it gets so bad that it made me laugh out loud. For instance, this is the longest and least convincing way in the English language to say “He woke up and his head hurt.”
Pryce Covington knew he wasn’t dead when his brain started lecturing him.
Apparently it was its way of dealing with the shock of the attack, once it had determined that the assault was not fatal. Seemingly, from what Pryce was distantly hearing, his subconscious was stunned, both physically and mentally, by the blow to the back of his head. In a land where magic was extolled, the need to strike someone on the back, side, top, or front of the head seemed so unnecessary—even barbaric—that Pryce’s brain couldn’t decide whether it was more perplexed than hurt. Later Pryce would call it a draw. Actually, he would have loved to have been more perplexed than hurt, but a blow to the skull in any form had unavoidable consequences of a physical nature. In a word, pain.
And that’s not even the whole thing! That’s just the first few sentences. It smacks of an author struggling desperately to hit the word count for a chapter. And don’t even get me started on the immersion-destroying intrusion of game mechanics into the fiction:
Then he continued the interrogation, his voice again somber and slow. “Class?”
The man waited for the clerk to continue, but when he didn’t, the befuddled person felt compelled to say, “Some schooling, sir…”
“A, bard; B, priest; C, vagabond; D, warrior; E, wizard; F, other.”
“Oh! Uh … C, I suppose … No, A! Yes, that’s right, A”
Thanks, I hate it. And then there’s the bizarre diction. The author is continually choosing words like “esoteric,” “pervade,” or “calibration” that are similar to the word he was looking for, but don’t actually mean what he wanted them to mean:
From where he stood, Pryce could barely see the esoteric tops of buildings, but he saw no telltale window from which he could be seen.
What exactly is an esoteric roof? Can a roof be philosophically or academically abstruse? It’s a mystery for the ages. Sometimes he even picks a word that directly contradicts what he was trying to say, as in “tastefully flamboyant.” It’s a non-stop parade of malapropisms that kept puncturing my suspension of disbelief. An editor could have caught this, if TSR hadn’t been trying to shovel products onto shelves as fast as they could.
Sentences sometimes don’t follow naturally from one another, jumping to a new thought abruptly as if there were a sentence missing. The writing is packed with modern anachronisms (“switchblade,” “ion,” “titanium plate special,” “satanically,” “a locked room mystery”), plus the occasional bad pun, none of which were necessary or clever and all of which pulled me out of the story. Some of the proper nouns are clearly the author attempting to work in sly references to the names of people he knows. I could go on, but you get the idea. If I had to pick one word to describe the writing in this novel, it would be “clumsy.”
This book took me a long time to review because I had to start it three times. I’d get a little ways in, get bored or distracted, then put it down for a few weeks. By the time I picked it up again, I’d forgotten so much that I had to start over from scratch. Having just finished the book, if you were to ask me to describe the plot to you off the top of my head, I’d struggle to recall the details. That’s not a great sign.
It’s not offensively bad, but neither could I stretch to call it good. Moments of it verge on genuinely entertaining, but it’s too badly constructed. Every time the mystery got thornier, it made me anxious to learn more… and then I was lulled back to insensibility by long, irrelevant descriptions, meandering conversations, and unrelated digressions. It’s just meh, a vaguely entertaining but unmemorable book with a preposterous premise and frustrating writing. I’m looking forward to the upcoming Ed Greenwood novel because, while past experience suggests that it won’t be good, at least it’s likely to be interestingly bad.
 Curiously, with the exception of Mount Talath, none of the locations we see are actual places in Halruaa. They appear to have been made up specifically for this novel and were then completely ignored by the rest of the Realms canon.
 A fun fact I learned recently: the concept of the derro in Dungeons & Dragons as a race of cruel, degenerate dwarves originated in the schizophrenic rantings of a 1940s pulp magazine author.
2 Replies to “Murder in Halruaa”
-It sounds like this is another story that depends on the uber-powerful wizards being too stupid to consider using divination or mind-reading spells, or conjuring up some sort of extraplanar entity to get them the information the way R.A. Salvatore’s magic-users sometimes did, sort of like what I pointed out with Vangerdahast in Cormyr: A Novel. Does anybody ever think of trying to read Covington’s mind with something as simple as an ESP spell? It’s possible to even use these spells without derailing the entire story, such as in Azure Bonds when Dimswart hired a cleric to cast a divination on whether Zrie Prakis was still alive. He wasn’t, but that didn’t keep him from still being involved in the story-and the explanation is one that I can accept Dimswart might not have thought of.
-An episode of the Canadian detective show Murdoch Mysteries had the title character do something similar with two murderers. namely lure them into the middle of nowhere and goad them into confessing. The catch was he’d gotten two of his fellow officers to get to the place ahead of him and hide. They hear the murderers’ confession, emerge from hiding and arrest the murderers before they can kill Murdoch. Couldn’t Pryce have arranged something like that with Mystra’s ‘inquisitrixes’? Maybe this was Covington’s laziness finally kicking in.
-Personal soapbox rant: I hate all the different types of words English uses for the feminine and plural versions of certain words-‘executrix’ vs. ‘actress’ and ‘octopi’ versus ‘cars’, for instance. Most of the time, just use the ‘male’ pronoun as the default or stick an ‘s’ on the end of a word and call it a day.
-Ugh, the sheer amount of purple prose you cite reminds me of some of the worst crap I could come up with 15-odd years ago. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken any creative writing courses (I haven’t) but I’m inclined to think that one of the basic rules for good writing, along with “show, don’t tell” is that “less is more”, especially when it comes to wording?
-My assumption would be that the author meant to depict the Halruuan architecture as bizarre or strange when he called it “esoteric”, but the words I cited would’ve been just as useful. A few descriptions of buildings that looked like they shouldn’t be able to stay upright, houses blooming out of giant trees, or made completely from strange substances like quartz or gold would convey the strange architecture of a country ruled by powerful mages. That probably would’ve been a lot clearer, if less purple.
-Given the kinds of things Batman and his enemies can pull off in some of his comics, I might give the author a pass on the critiques you make of his intuitiveness and recalling trivial details, depending on how it’s handled. Maybe it’s not as well-done in the actual book, but Sherlock Holmes made his name doing exactly that sort of thing. Does the text explain Covington’s reasoning at any point? And being able to intuit things about people is a skill that many real-world politicians, interviewers, teachers, sports coaches, etc. have all found useful.
-One trick I’ve found very useful in my writing has been to try to mention passing background or personality details about various characters as a way to tell the reader more about them or hint at other parts of their character. The Simpsons was really good about that, for instance. I love how it can make the world feel deeper and more immersive, even if we don’t learn a lot more than those hints. Matt Mercer does a lot of that in Critical Role-one memorable character in the current campaign is “Pretty”, an ogre who hailed from the wilderness and got a job in the city as a tavern bouncer. He didn’t like beating people up, so he managed to become one of the tavern’s cooks. He’s much happier now and is a regular visitor at one of the city theatres. Pretty is not an adventurer, much less a major figure in the campaign’s plot, but he’s still memorable and charming all the same.
The things you’ve brought up aren’t quite plot holes. Nobody ever tries to read Covington’s mind because they think he’s a magical badass who would be protected from it, and they don’t want to tangle with him. Covington doesn’t involve the inquisitrixes in the murderer’s apprehension because if he did, it would blow his cover and they’d learn he’s an impostor. I grant that that’s an understandable motivation, but it doesn’t excuse the suicidal idiocy of putting yourself at the murderer’s mercy with no backup plan, not does it excuse how he gets his allies killed as a result.
I think you’re correct about writing style and characterization. The ideal, as James Baldwin once said, is to “write a sentence as clean as a bone,” where every word is necessary and every word is the right word. There are certainly other effective styles of writing, like Proust’s page-long run-on sentences, but I think it’s impossible to do that and not let the artifice get in the way of the story to some degree.