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Murder by Magic: Twenty Tales of Crime and the Supernatural
edited by Rosemary Edghill
Warner Aspect, 352 pages

Murder by Magic
Rosemary Edghill
Rosemary Edghill is the pseudonym for eluki bes shahar, the prolific author of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels, including the popular Bast novels. Her first SF work was Hellflower in 1991. Her fantasy novels include the Twelve Treasures series from DAW, and her SF works are Darktraders (DAW, 1992), Archangel Blues (DAW 1993), and Smoke and Mirrors.

Rosemary Edghill Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Cloak of Night and Daggers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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For the price of a plate at a modest dinner house you can get twenty stories that range over quite a wide spectrum, the common elements being: murder and magic.

These stories range from historical fantasy to police procedurals with an extra fillip of otherwordly doings -- from Esther Friesner's funny "Au Purr" and Laura Resnick's wisecracker gangsters in "Doppelgangster" to Teresa Edgerton's moody, minor key tale set in her Goblin world, "Captured in Silver." Many of these tales will linger in the mind, and I know I will be revisiting a number of them for pleasurable rereads; some at least to my eye could have benefited from another round of editing, but there isn't a stinker in the bunch. Some work better than others -- and all readers might not agree which are the most successful. What I can assure the reader of this review is that you get plenty of "bang" for your buck.

Editor Edghill divided the stories into categories: Muder Most Modern, Murder Unclassifiable; Murder Most Genteel; Murder Fantastical; and Murder Most Historical.

The opening story, Jennifer Roberson's "Piece of Mind" is an odd tale, featuring a burned-out police officer who meets a woman who has a special ability. She, in turn, uses her insight to discover what burned him out. The murder is years old, the case settled by court of law... and the fact that it creeps from fiction to real life, and the assumptions made thereby, might disturb some readers. As an opener, it was an interesting choice-kind of a signal that the stories are not going to be cozy drawing room mysteries with elves and fairies. Hold onto your expectations, you're in for surprise.

"Special Guest Appearance by..." by Carole Nelson Douglas concerns Las Vegas magicians. The protagonist, who has been a headliner for years, thinks of magic as a part of the trade, which makes it somewhat surprising how swiftly he accepts the supernatural element when it does come into play. But then he sort of has to, in this encounter with a former assistant who made good very much on her own terms.

Laura Resnick's "Doppelgangster" is one of my favorites. The wisecracking tone as the gangster protagonist tries to figure out who is rubbing out some of his colleague-enemies will evoke the best of Damon Runyan. I can't help wishing the very last line was left off -- the line before it seems a better end note -- but otherwise this story is tight, funny, and twisty.

Will Graham's "Mixed Marriages Can Be Murder" features a married couple who work in partnership -- a setup that will occur again in this anthology. They are hired by a man who wishes the very best he can buy for a simple case of industrial security. Like any story whose main setup is labeled simple, there are complications.

Josepha Sherman is next with "The Case of the Headless Corpse." The protagonist doesn't need arcane powers to see that the corpse in question was murdered -- as she says, "Very few suicides manage to tear off their own heads." In this world, magic is a part of life, but not all are comfortable with it: the murdered man used magic in his business, and his estranged wife hated that magic as evil and sinful. Making her the prime suspect -- but the wrong one. Almost lethally wrong. A briskly paced tale, one I really liked.

Debra Doyle's "A Death in the Working" is one of my favorites. Anyone who, like me, is an ardent fan of Doyle's and co-author James D. Macdonald's Mageworlds series is going to yip for joy to discover that this story is set there -- a story presented within the context of an academic paper, complete with historical footnotes and discursions on Mageworld and Adeptworld literary history. Fans of the novels will be reasonably sure where it's going (but not quite, as it turns out), other readers will find it a surprise, but either way it's a pleasure to watch the story unfold while following the footnotes below. I sure hope there will be more of these.

Bringing us to my favorite of all, Diane Duane's "Cold Case." Deservedly famous for her So You Want to Be a Wizard fantasies for young adults, Duane introduces Rob, who is in this bad neighborhood to investigate a murder at a closed-up crack-house. In pellucid prose Duane has Rob interview Mrs. Elkridge, a scene which gives her both dignity and personality in a nice juxtaposition with the tired, experienced Rob. Surprise after surprise awaits the reader, but Duane takes care to infuse these characters, even a briefly-introduced murderer, with insight and compassion, before launching us into the totally unexpected ending. I could wish there had been a bit more explanation there -- I had to reread the crucial paragraph several times to get all the data -- but even so, this one really resonated with me. But then I am a sucker for a seemingly mundane tale that yanks away the floor and leaves one freefalling in the numinous.

Following is Susan Matthews' "Snake in the Grass." Galen is a pagan who has come to investigate the death of her friend, the pagan priestess Austin. Galen finds clues that Austin had, against her usual habit, used a dangerous set of rites called Taber, which calls for the participation of a lethal Kinsey snake instead of her friendly Folliet snake. Galen is going to have to do a ritual to find out the truth. This is one of the ones I wish had had one more pass: the prose is exquisite -- Matthews is a topnotch prose stylist -- but the middle tends to drag a bit while repeating bits of information about rituals, snakes, and snake god encounters over and over. Once the ritual begins, the tale snaps into intensity, and doesn't let the reader go until the end.

"Double Jeopardy" by M.J. Hamilton mixes guardians, gods, and murder; the first person narrator is a kickass heroine who has to complete a ritual at a certain time -- but first she has to solve the murder of her sister. And then she is kidnapped. Fun story, moving rapidly to its denoument.

Roberta Gellis, a well-known name in historical romance, follows with a tricky tale set in a small village where mages are difficult to afford. Witches are not highly regarded by everyone, though apparently there is a government-sponsored system for the education and employment of them for the common good. Brenda, the protagonist, has been locked up for two days by her employer, Dame Hillyard, who insists just because she's a witch Brenda killed her friend Amy. Dame Hillyard is only waiting for the authorities to take her and burn her. But the inspector who comes is not what anyone expects. Very enjoyable in a quiet way.

"Overrush" by Laura Anne Gillman features another couple who work together. It's not quite clear how the magic works, or what exactly is going on, other than mages are somehow getting jolted so they in effect burn up with mage-energy, a lot like being electrically shocked to death. Wren, the protagonist, has a lot of anxiety about her abilities and the consequences, and about what this case might mean, but the details of the case are not as clear as her emotional turmoil. I wish the magical aspect of the tale had been a bit clearer.

As mentioned above, Teresa Edgerton's "Captured in Silver" is set in a corner of the very strange universe where her novel The Queen's Necklace is set. Edgerton's Goblins are unlike anyone else's-quite fascinating. The writing is lovely, the tale a straightforward vengeance story, the mood fragrant with exotica but do not look for comfort here.

"A Night at the Opera" by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller features a married couple who solve cases. This is a deliberate echo of The Thin Man, with a twist, beginning with the first line: "She was old money. He was old magic." Their names are even Nick and Nora. This is one of the ones I wish had had one more pass; the authors at their best write with such wit, and panache, but there are signs of hurry here, which clash in tiny ways with the brilliancy of The Thin Man dialogue in the Myrna Loy movies. But caveat aside, the tale is brisk, the resolution showing an unexpected hint of teeth.

Next is my second favorite, "A Tremble in the Air" by James D. Macdonald. This is the best drawing room mystery in the bunch, its tone exactly right, the characters, the details, spare yet telling. Don't skip a sentence -- every single word adds up to an ending impossible to guess before the investigator, Mr. Nesbit, reveals it. And even then there is still one more surprise in the very last line.

"Murder Entailed" by Susan Krinard is another drawing room mystery, set in an English country house, in an England where magical talents of various sorts are handed down through aristocratic families, sometimes by acts of will on deathbeds. Lord Roderick Featherstonehaugh is found dead in his guest chamber, and the hostess really wishes to solve the murder without upsetting the other guests. Aided by her friend Kit, she has to interview people both above-stairs and below. I found the ending easy to guess but the characters were so much fun I enjoyed watching the tale unfold, even if there were few surprises past the initial revelation.

Fantasy writer Lawrence Watt-Evans gives us a tight, genuine puzzle in "Dropping Hints." A young duke is making the rounds on his unexpected accession to the title, which includes a visit to the local mage. While they are settling their mutual good will, one of the mage's five identical homunculi, made as servants, gets angry and bashes the mage to death with a scepter. Croy has to solve the murder to provide justice. The way the story is laid out might remind the reader of those logic problems we wrestled with in junior high: "If servant A wears a green armband, and was in the kitchen, and servant B wears a yellow armband and was in the front hall." A cleverly constructed story.

"Au Purr," in case the title doesn't immediately give it away, is by the mistress of fantasy humor, Esther Friesner, and yes it involves cats. And rats, and a dead sister, whose murder must be solved. Friesner's strengths are humor and appealing characters, two elements this story delivers.

"Getting the Chair" by Keith R.A. DeCandido is not about electric chairs. It is about a pair of detectives in a fantasy world who have to solve the murder of a local mage -- and the only witnesses are the furniture. It's a fun story with a light touch; the author plans to write more about these characters. There's plenty of potential here.

Lilian Stewart Carl's "The Necromancer's Apprentice" is set in Elizabethan times. It seems Doctor Dee is in charge of magic, which at first disappointed me -- John Dee being so over-used in occult tales, when there were so many fascinating figures of that period. But the story is not about Dee, it concerns a far more humble mage named Erasmus Pilbeam, who is summoned by Lord Robert Dudley to solve the murder of his young wife, Amy Robart. Carl shows considerable with the period, particularly with the invective of the time; her visual details are especially fine, as is her evocation of the young Queen Elizabeth. Magic is nicely mixed with history here, coming to a believable resolution. Another of my favorites.

The last story is by popular fantasy writer Mercedes Lackey, whose "Grey Eminence" seems to draw heavily on the mid-nineteenth century London of Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Little Princess. The heroines, Nan, a plucky Cockney, and Sara (echoing Sarah Crewe) are inmates of a school, but Mrs. Harton (Memsah'b) is no Miss Minchin: the school is comfortable, the children well-cared for, and Mrs. Harton is far more than a mere Victorian matron. The structure of this story is somewhat odd, making me wonder if it was cut down from a much longer piece. It begins with several pages of back story that might have flowed better had it been woven into a scene, but later we are abruptly told in passing that Nan's psychic talent (never quite described) had been discovered after a séance that we do not see. Also kept off-stage are Sarah and Nan's subsequent psychic exploits, despite the fact that their abilities drive the second half of the story. The first half concerns Nan's trip to the Tower of London, where she finds her familiar, a raven. The careful description of the birds (Sarah has a gray parrot) is lovingly done, so vivid the birds tend to outshine the girls, who are somewhat stock characters. Then the action comes when the girls are lured away by the villain. Lackey has built up a loyal readership with her tales in which plucky, deserving protagonists have great powers come when they most need them, and this story will not disappoint them.

All in all an entertaining anthology that provides plenty of magical mayhem.

Copyright © 2004 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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