Lair of the Geek

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Hot Lead, Cold Iron

Hot-Lead-Cold-Iron_cvr_frntArthur Ari Marmell
Titan Books £7.99
Review By: David Stonehouse
Hot Lead, Cold Iron is subtitled ‘A Mick Oberon Job’, which sets it up nicely in a very specific literary genre. And it might seem, at first glance, to be a bit of an odd concept. It’s a gangster story set in Prohibition-era Chicago, full of wise-guys, mouthy dolls and plenty of Tommy-gun violence. However, it’s also a fairy story of sorts, with Fae, magical creatures and a parallel supernatural civilisation. You may be thinking this sounds like a bit of an odd and uncomfortable marriage, but stick with it, because it really works well and it’s a whole lot of fun.
The style is that of the hard-boiled detective novel. Think Raymond Chandler with added monsters and witchcraft. Our narrator and hero is Private Investigator Mick Oberon, who prowls the mean streets of Chicago. Al Capone has been put away but the various Mafia families are still about their business and it’s a city on a knife-edge, where shooting s and honour repercussions are never far away.
When Mick’s landlord tells him he’s going to be evicted because he can’t meet the bills on their building Mick promises to help out by raising the cash. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of cases out there that pay good money and, when he runs out of legitimate options, Mick is forced to accept a missing person case from Bianca Ottati, the wife of one of the big family bosses. The money’s good but the risks are huge, and this isn’t your regular missing person investigation. Bianca wants Mick to find her daughter who went missing sixteen years ago. The problem is nobody realised the girl had gone missing because she had been replaced with an identical Fae changeling substitute. Now Adalina, the changeling daughter, is beginning to transform back into her true form and the secret is well and truly out. To keep her hidden the family matriarch, a powerful witch called Donna Orsola has trapped Adalina in the house with powerful charms. Mick needs to find out what happened to the real daughter, but where does he start when the trail has been cold for sixteen years? Solving the mystery takes Mick deep into the Chicago underworld, but also across to the nightmarish Fae shadow-world in his search for the truth.
Mick is great company. He tells his story with a mouthful of gangland street slang, a nice turn in vivid imagery and a heavy dose of very dark humour. He’s a character with history in both worlds, human and Fae, and Marmell pitches his backstory just right, exploring enough history to give his character depth but never too much exposition to spoil his air of mystery. For example, we learn that Mick is a willing exile from his Fae background, that there was trouble back there that he is keen to avoid returning to, but the details are left tantalisingly hanging. This is a character you’re going to want to revisit and these unanswered questions are going to give Marmell plenty of scope for many more Mick Oberon adventures. Another nice idea is that the Fae have mostly left our world because they find our rapidly evolving technology very uncomfortable. For Mick, just interacting with basic human technology is unpleasant, but more complex devices such as cars and telephones actually cause pain and discomfort. All this adds to his air of secrecy. What is so bad in his own world that he’s prepared to put up with all this misery in ours?
The magical elements are dealt with very well. There’s very little time spent on longwinded explanations. Instead the details are woven into the story as it unfolds. We learn that, as an aristocratic Fae, Mick is virtually indestructible in our world. He can take much more punishment than a human could, though it probably doesn’t hurt any less, and he can recover from even the most serious of injuries in a matter of days. However, in the Fae world he needs to be a lot more careful because damage from his own kind is a lot more permanent. There are witches and creatures that are capable of very powerful spells but, for Fae like Mick, magic is much more subtle. He wields his trusty wand but all this does is help him to exert influence. He can briefly put humans under subtle pressure to make them do what he wants, which proves handy on more than one occasion, and he also has the ability to tilt luck in his favour for short periods. This is all very nice and helpful but not much more useful than a fly-swatter when up against proper witch-magic or a volley of very real Tommy-gun bullets.
Gangland Chicago is very well realised and pleasingly familiar from films and detective novels. It’s satisfyingly grimy and full of rich characters, molls, wise-guys, bar-keeps, cops and all the other stock faces you’d expect. Marmell’s real triumph, though, comes when Mick crosses over into the Fae version of Chicago. We learn that, much as they despise us, the Fae are also completely dependent on humans, and that their own civilisation always echoes the human one. Fae Chicago is a vividly realised nightmarish recreation of the real one. It’s a world that the Fae have built without really understanding how and why human things are the way they are. It’s a fascinating idea and leads to some very striking and unexpected passages.
Hot Lead, Cold Iron comes highly recommended. If you like magic, fairies, gangsters, detectives and a cleverly constructed mystery, then this will be very much up your street. And if you like this one you’ll be glad to know that a second Mick Oberon Job, Hallow Point, is on the way in 2015.