Culture & Criticism Since 2003
Fantasy Noir is an interesting cross-genre. It combines the gritty hyper-realism of Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard with the horror and humor of William Goldman or Terry Pratchett. Combining two disparate themes like these requires careful balance; it has to be realistic, lyrical, absurd and vulgar at the same time.
But in this latest installment of his Nightwise series, R. S. Belcher manages the feat quite nicely. The plot of The Night Dahlia is rich and evocative as characters like Faerie King and Mob Boss Theodore Ankou (Lord of the Isles of Albion; Baron of the Black-Light Realms; and High-Minister of the Realm of Uncountable Stars) find a home in Belcher’s story.
At one point in the novel, Laytham Ballard is contracted to find Ankou’s 13 year old daughter, who’s run away to find stardom in LA’s porn industry. From the onset, Ballard isn’t too impressed with the head honcho of the Sugar Plum Mafia, but after Ankou waves a couple of dozen million dollar bearer bonds under his nose, he reluctantly takes the job. At this juncture, The Night Dahlia really begins to hum – the results, at various points, horrifying, hilarious, and grippingly tense.
Ballard, the main protagonist of the story, shows startling depths of character, alternately seeing himself as a mighty wizard destined to save humanity, and also as the lowest and most vile piece of excrement in the universe. It’s clear from the responses he gets from the other characters that most of them share the latter opinion. Nonetheless, all of this back-and-forth creates a complex and nuanced character dissemination in what turns into a fun and demanding challenge for the reader.
Typically, characters who spend a lot of time moaning about their lot put me off. A great Russian author can sometimes get away with it, but in less ambitious fiction, it often falls flat. Yet Ballard, who racks up an impressive body count during his gumshoe-for-the-holy-grail operation, isn’t just engaging, he is extremely interesting as well. And it’s his voice that keeps the reader reading because, despite everything, Ballard is truly likable.
In the end, this is only a testament to Belcher’s writing, which is at its best throughout The Night Dahlia.
Bryan Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Canada and raised in London. He has lived in the Mount Shasta area since 1990, which he regards as the finest place on earth. Jamieson has spent the past 25 years as a graphic layout technician, web designer and writer, with over a thousand essays, a dozen short stories, and two novels – Ice Fall and Snow Fall – to his credit. In addition to his wife of 30-plus years, he normally lives with a dog and several cats, none of whom are impressed by him. Reach him through The Electric Review.