Alex Bledsoe, Dark Jenny, ISBN 9780765327437, Tom Doherty Associates, March 2011.
Reviewed by Maya Chhabra.
Leave it to Alex Bledsoe to find the murder mystery in Malory. Dark Jenny, the third installment in his noir detective/medieval fantasy Eddie LaCrosse series, finds Eddie roped into investigating a poisoning in Grand Bruan (read: Great Britain), where the peace and justice brought by already-legendary King Marcus are threatened when his wife, Jennifer, widely suspected of infidelity with the preeminent Knight of the Double Tarn, is implicated in a murder. Eddie must find the real killer and prevent what looks like a frame-up aimed at destabilizing Marcus’s rule.
As you may have guessed by now, this is an Arthurian retelling, but Bledsoe reinvigorates well-known tropes with a combination of deep background knowledge and fertile imagination. The poisoning plot that kicks off the story comes from a lesser-known episode in Le Morte D’Arthur, and the book is peppered with literary allusions, including a tavern name referencing Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott.” And that’s just the beginning. Occasionally Bledsoe’s cleverness undermines itself— the identity of the mysterious “Kindermord” proves predictable— but the overall effect of his erudition is to establish that we’re in good hands as far as the source material goes.
Bledsoe mines the Arthurian corpus for episodes that prove nothing is it seems, adding his own twists and showing Camelot as seen through “a mirror crack’d,” all doubling and distortion. This gap between image and reality provides Eddie with plenty of opportunity to share his cynical worldview.
The fabled court inevitably falls short of legend, yet as world-weary as Eddie is, he is forced to acknowledge the power of the ideal that drives the king and his companions. The “good guys” prove fatally flawed, but have a certain pathos as they try and fail to create a decent society. Most of the characters are not very complex, but they have the flaws of their virtues and vice versa. Particularly memorable are Elliot Spears, the Lancelot equivalent keenly aware that he will someday meet his match, and, on a lighter note, the honorable, self-righteous Gillian. Eddie himself is the most subtly characterized— his appealing sense of justice does not preclude the use of appalling means to achieve that end.
This conflict mirrors an interesting aspect of Bledsoe’s worldbuilding, his combination of modern-day vocabulary and mores with medieval tech, politics, and social hierarchy. This may not be terribly plausible, but I found it refreshing; your mileage may vary. LaCrosse’s sarcastic, hardboiled detective narration meshes well with court intrigue, and parts of this book are literally laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly so for a book with themes of violence, sexism, identity, and disillusionment.
Dark Jenny is a fast-paced mystery with plenty of action; it’s also intelligent, original, and satisfyingly chiaroscuro.