Saturday, November 4, 2006

The Man Who Fought Alone, Stephen R. Donaldson

The Man Who Fought Alone
Stephen R. Donaldson

Life has taken some complex turns of late - in various directions - and it's been a challenge to read much of anything for nearly a month now. At last I've finished reading another novel - The Man Who Fought Alone by Stephen R. Donaldson - and it's time to write a review.

I should mention - for those who don't already know it - that I have a prejudice in this case. I almost always enjoy Donaldson's writing. I've read various things he's written - nearly all of it in fact - with the exception of his mystery series, of which this novel is a part. "Mystery series?" I hear you ask. "Isn't this the guy that wrote about Thomas Covenant?" Yes, that's him.

Back in about 1980 Donaldson began writing detective novels. He's written four so far. The first three were initially published under the pseudonym "Reed Stephens". This novel - The Man Who Fought Alone - is the fourth in the series.

"Fourth," I now hear you say. "Why did you start with number four?"

Actually, I didn't mean to. I grabbed this one out of my TBR pile and glanced at its list of other books written by Donaldson, which includes everything except any of the other "Man Who..." novels and one other (very recent) book. Based on that I assumed it was the first in the series and started in on it. Only just now - as I scan's database for info - did I learn that it was the latest in the series. Oh well. I guess I hold the publisher who didn't list everything he should have on that page responsible for my getting things out of order. From the looks of it the series goes like this:
  1. The Man Killed His Brother (1980)
  2. The Man Who Risked His Partner (1986)
  3. The Man Who Tried To Get Away (1990)
  4. The Man Who Fought Alone (2001)
Some may wonder why Donaldson started writing mysteries when his fantasy writing was so successful. He gives you his own answer (in general terms) here:

To summarize, though, he was stretching his wings - to see how far they'd go - before tackling the really big story floating around in his head. (That really big story is The Last Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, by the way.)

So, what can I say about The Man Who Fought Alone? Well, it's a mystery novel. A murder mystery, in fact. The hero - a rough and beat up private investigator, possibly deserving of the term "hard boiled" - is Mick Axebrewder, known as "Brew" to his few friends. Like just about all of Donaldson's heroes, Brew suffers a lot through this book - both physically and psychologically - but it's not as bad as it could be. In fact, it's almost uplifting by the end. To say more - or why - would be a spoiler. Since I haven't read the first three novels in the series yet I lack all kinds of background information, but I suspect that Brew suffers much more in those earlier novels than he does here. I could be wrong, but it seems likely knowing Donaldson and seeing how Brew is treated here.

The plot is harder for me to evaluate. I've never been a big reader of mysteries - by any author - so I am not the best qualified to judge such things. I found it enjoyable and it kept me wondering who the guilty party was all along. Some of the reviews I checked on say Donaldson gives it away about halfway through. I didn't see that, but that could easily be explained by my lack of mystery reading experience.

What I can criticize - to some extent - is the setting. Brew starts out needing a job and winds up doing security work at a martial arts tournament. Donaldson then uses that setting to expound on the martial arts in depth throughout the book. A few times I thought it hung on the very edge of bogging the story down but then recovered. Let's say I was too aware of it in some way, and that perhaps it could have been limited somewhat without losing the story. Of course, Donaldson is a second degree black belt himself, so he's writing about something he knows. I actually appreciated the background in many cases, and I'm willing to cut him some slack for discussing in detail something he clearly loves.

The only other criticism I can lay out relates to Donaldson's writing style. I love the way he writes, but for certain characters it may be a liability. Brew is used to working in squalid conditions and hanging out in places most would never go. Every so often Donaldson has him think (and less often speak) in words that I really doubt he'd know or use. Here is an example. Brew is talking to his new love interest and says: "Me neither. Heaven forfend."

The context really doesn't matter much there, but the words "heaven forfend" just don't sound plausible coming out of Brew's mouth. He's a tough SOB and I just don't think he'd actually speak that way. More likely he'd say "Me neither. Hell no."

Of course, I could be mistaken. There are those previously mentioned three volumes of "introductory" material that I haven't read yet. They might explain why Brew occasionally has a vocabulary more appropriate for an English professor than a PI. I guess I'll figure that out when I read those books.

And read them I will. This book was good enough to make me want to learn more about Brew and his partner, Ginny Fistoulari. Their history sounds interesting, and even if Donaldson's writing isn't quite right for the characters in all cases, it's still a pleasure to read.

In short, a recommended work by one of my favorite authors. Not his best effort, but easily good enough to merit your time.