If you cast a wide net, and you read enough you will eventually find something new under the sun. He Drank, and Saw the Spider by Alex Bledsoe is just such a book for me at least. This book is part of a series, the Eddie LaCrosse novels featuring, not surprisingly, a character named Eddie LaCrosse. The rest of it is surprising however because Eddie is a private detective or at least as much of a private detective that can exist in a medieval fantasy world complete with wizards, dragons, and half of the male populace clanking about in armor. Conceptually the two genres would seem far apart, but some of the works of Fritz Leiber's in particular, have given the sword and sorcery world the requisite touch or criminal decadence that makes gumshoes believable.
What takes some getting used to in this book is the dialogue. Its pure twentieth century, replete with "dudes" and "pals", and most of the main characters, as befitting the hard-broiled genre, come across as full-time smart-alecks who are boning up on their Chandlerisms; Eddie in particular is quick with the snappy repartee. It works to ground the events of the book and give everyone a "just folks" kind of feel, and certainly beats the flowery and stiff "thees", thous" and "varlets" that sinks a lot of this kind of stuff, but George R.R. Martin in the Books of Fire and Ice does a good job of making his dialogue earthy without seeming as jarring as Mr. Bledsoe's sometimes does. So that part of the book is a kind of a mixed bag, but I give the author credit for at least trying something different that succeeds here and there.
The plot is pretty solid with Eddie rescuing a mysterious baby girl from a hideous fate, and finding a family that will take her in, as he is just a wandering mercenary, or "sword-jockey" as the book has it. Sixteen years later Eddie and his girlfriend Liz just happen to be travelling through the same area when a series of events stirs Eddie's memory, and prompts him to seek out the girl and the family that took her in. That's when the story starts to take off as incognito princes, tricky blackguards and under-cover kings start to interact with our protagonists, and the farm-folk who are trying to enjoy a seasonal festival. Most of the characters are well-drawn if not stunningly original, and Liz stands out in particular, funny and feisty. There is a notable lack of swordplay, explained by the fact that most of the characters smartly realize the deadly seriousness of it, but the action that does take place is solid, and well-written. A lot of classic hard-boiled clichés are touched upon in interesting ways, including the inevitable scene where Eddie gets slipped a Mickey. There is also another hilarious one where Eddie and another hard guy end up thumb-wrestling to prove their toughness. Mr. Bledsoe excels at such scenes, and has a nice touch with making his characters humans (even the monsters), and not black or white tokens.
The end of the book feels a bit rushed, and when the action shifts from the farms and small villages that are the books centerpiece, to a castle with dungeons, an unstable king and a sorceress advisor the book seemed to lose some of the heart and immediacy that made is read so well earlier on. As Eddie tries to smooth over the happy ending he comes across as a little too much of the therapist and not enough of the cynical world-weary PI he was early on, but in the end the magical princess gets a decent prince, war is averted, and what more could you really want? Oh, and just for your information the title refers to a fable mentioned a few times in the book, which seems kind of arbitrary, but the title certainly grabs one's attention.