Arkham Detective Agency: A Lovecraftian-Noir Tribute to C. J. Henderson
Dark Regions Press
Brian M. Sammons (ed.)
I have a secret weakness for a certain type of genre character. I enjoy reading a fairly wide variety of genre titles and their protagonists, antagonists and so forth, but one archetype that will make me pick up a book more than any other is that pulp classic, the grizzled private detective. Give me a veteran gumshoe with a bottle in one hand, a worn pistol in the other hand and a string of divorces behind him – a man who wakes up in his office with a hangover and no clients, before getting dragged into some mysterious case that is way above his knowledge and capabilities – and I will read every page and demand the next in the series. I must have read hundreds over the years, from the classics in the genre by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, to more recent titles; one of my favourite series, in fact, is the Midnight Eye Files by William Meikle, which mixes a hardboiled Glaswegian private eye with elements of the Cthulhu Mythos.
So I was overjoyed to find that Dark Regions Press had recently published Arkham Detective Agency: A Lovecraftian-Noir Tribute to C. J. Henderson, which according to the back-cover blurb featured “Strong-jawed private eyes facing off against unknowable ancient evil in Lovecraftian-noir horror” Frankly this couldn’t be more tailored to my reading habits if the editor had consulted with me personally, so I downloaded a copy immediately; even more fortunately, Dark Regions Press have taken the reader-centric decision to make many of their titles available on the Kindle Unlimited scheme, which meant that I actually had a chance to read it, rather than having to pass it by. The anthology’s subtitle is also very important, because this is one of several titles that have been published in the wake of the death of C.J. Henderson, an incredibly highly-skilled and prolific author who practically invented the modern Mythos take on the Lovecraftian P.I, and who passed away in July 2014.
Unfortunately I only discovered Mr Henderson’s works quite recently, after his passing, but as soon as I found them, I have to admit I was hooked: his private detectives were hard-drinking, hard-fighting womanisers who would quite literally fist-fight with various Lovecraftian creatures and deities in order to save the world, and I loved every second of them. His last creation was Franklin Nardi, a former NYPD officer who had retired to Arkham in an attempt to set up a private detective agency with some other retirees, only to find himself in the middle of one of the foci of stygian terrors from beyond human comprehension; and Arkham Detective Agency is an anthology that takes the world of Franklin Nardi and builds on it, often in some very effective and even surprising ways.
Consisting of a total of nineteen stories, this anthology has some fantastic stories by some incredibly talented Mythos writers; and none more so, of course, than the four Nardi stories written by Mr Henderson, which are cleverly used to bookend the entire collection and therefore help to highlight the signature themes and personalities of the Arkham Detective Agency universe. All four stories (The Idea of Fear, Cruelty, The Nest of Pain and A Pleasure in Madness) feature the author’s usual consistently high-quality writing and characterisation, but the very first story in the collection, The Idea of Fear, is in my opinion one of Mr Henderson’s finest works in his entire writing history. It’s a relatively short tale, but while it does introduce Nardi as a hard-as-nails, sceptical P.I., it also manages to neatly subvert the entire stereotype of the character, by having Nardi quite literally bear his naked soul in an attempt to lure out a spirit that is potentially haunting the property he’s investigating. It’s a great piece of fiction, and more than any other story in the collection, I came back to read it again and again to admire it.
After a trio of original Nardi stories, we then get another 15 tales set in the Nardi-verse. One of the first of these stories is Call and Response by William Meikle, which to my delight is actually a Midnight Eye Files story. Mr Meikle’s own hard-boiled detective, Derek Adams, is visited by Franklin Nardi, who brings along a mystery related John Logie Baird, and a puzzle that could potentially lead to the end of the world. Mr Meikle is one of my favourite authors, who I’ll be covering in far more detail in an upcoming second entry in ‘Authors You Need To Read’, and here he delivers a cracking story that provides a rather chilling counterpoint the previous rough and tumble stories; there’s no fighting or inter-dimensional beasties, just some genuine detective work that leads to more questions than answers, and an unsettling ending that is typical for a tale by Mr Meikle. Miskatonic Contradance by Konstantine Paradias is a fast-moving and almost breathless tale that sees Nardi and a companion desperately try and fight off a possessed Arkhamite from bringing a god into being, and which sees much of Arkham get torn apart in a tense and exciting finale; and Light a Candle, Curse the Darkness by Paula R. Stiles is a tense and highly-evocative look at the costs of living and working in Arkham from the viewpoint of one of Nardi’s clients, and which also provides a much-needed glimpse into the history of Arkham itself.
A tale of bitterness and revenge, Closure by Glynn Owen Barrass is one of the best stories in the entire anthology, tying into one of C.J. Henderson’s original Nardi stories from earlier in the collection and showing the personal and very human cost of having to deal with deities and creatures that are more powerful (and perverse) than anything a human could ever possibly imagine. And The Folk Below, by Josh Reynolds (another favourite), introduces one of his own creations into the Nardi universe: the terrifying, ever-smiling humanoid known as Indrid Cold. A character that has crossed over into a number of Mr Reynolds tales, Cold is a fantastically creepy and unsettling personality, who supposedly works for one of the alphabet-soup intelligence agencies in the United States (CIA, NSA, DSA etc.) but actually has his own malign agenda. Supposedly in town to ask Nardi to keep an eye on the auction of a rare artefact, Cold eventually ends up involving the Arkham Detective Agency in a mystery that ends with one of Mr Reynold’s specialities – a well-plotted and scripted fight involving occult figures, fist-fighting and guns. If you liked this story (as I very much did) then be sure to check out Mr Reynold’s Royal Occultist series. Finally I’d also like to highlight A Walk in the Shadows by Joseph S. Pulver. Sr., an excellent piece of detective fiction that looks at the Arkham Detective Agency world through the eyes of its latest recruit, and his attempts to try and make sense of the occult and increasingly terrifying case he is assigned to investigate.
Arkham Detective Agency is another great publication from Dark Regions Press, full of high-quality, well-written stories that act as a very fitting tribute to C.J. Henderson and one of his best creations, Franklin Nardi, and I would hope that before too long, we see a sequel come out with more stories in the Nardi-verse.