Review | A Troll Walks into a Bar – Douglas Lumsden

About the Book

A troll in a pin-striped suit walks into a bar. He’s looking for Alex Southerland, private investigator and summoner of elementals. A gorgeous dame is going to come to Southerland with a case, and the troll tells him that he is going to turn the case down–or else! But Southerland doesn’t respond well to threats, even from a seven-and-a-half foot, five-hundred pound enforcer. Besides, he needs the dough! The stubborn P.I. soon finds himself mixing it up with trolls and gang bosses, cruising through downtown streets in an outlandish beastmobile borrowed from a glorified pimp, and encountering corrupt city officials, creatures of legend, the sleaziest attorney in the city, a were-rat, and an irresistible–if homicidal–refugee from the ocean depths. Framed for a murder he didn’t commit, Southerland weaves his way from seedy neighborhoods to the dazzling lights of downtown–and from one savage beating to the next–to clear his name and uncover a shocking secret.

Published May, 2021
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I’m not a person who goes out of my way to read noir. I don’t mind the genre, but it’s just not my go to. A really good detective story can be entertaining, but it’s pretty far down on my list of things I eagerly look to read. So, when I started hearing whispers about this series, my first thought was, “That sounds interesting, maybe I’ll read it someday.” Recently, however, I found myself in the mood to read something a bit different, maybe not quite as intense as what I normally read, a bit of a detour from the usual. 

Insert A Troll Walks into a Bar

Set in a secondary world steeped in magic, there was an instant feel of “same but different” than our own world. While this place does have its own geography and history, there were a few times while I was reading when I wondered if this wasn’t a really cleverly reimagined version of our own world. However, the magic and the different races (trolls, gnomes, etc.) of creatures make it its own thing through and through. This world does have its own history, which is drawn upon and truly makes the world Lumsden created feel real and well-realized. Furthermore, it was steeped in atmosphere. I could almost smell some of the rooms Lumsden took me to, and saw the city, the alleyways, the dingy places as well. I loved how well-realized so much of this book was.

The magic was interesting, involving elements and/or summoning elementals. While it’s always part of the story, it never overwhelmed the plot itself, and rather felt like it was a nice addition to the book rather than something that overpowered it. I how our P.I., Alex Southerland, used it to help him get out of some sticky situations and the like. More, the addition of other races, from were-creatures to trolls, to witches and etc. fill the book with a sense of magic and wonder that I really wasn’t expecting to find in a story like this.

Recently, I edited a fantasy noir book that had a very similar tone to this one. When I talked to the author, he said he loved Raymond Chandler books and really wanted to write something sort of in homage to Chandler. I have to say, without ever having read a Raymond Chandler book, A Troll Walked into a Bar reminded me a whole lot of that book I edited. I’m not saying the two are overly similar but I am saying there were a few things with tone and prose that had a similar perfume in both books. For example, there isn’t a high emotional punch in this book. There are emotions, but the story is told almost one step removed, and after talking to the person I edited for, I learned that’s the style in books like these. You’re sort of being told what’s happening from one step back, and you have the room to infer emotions, personality quirks and the like on your own. At first, I’ll admit, this style sort of threw me. It absolutely is unique to the genre and something that grew on me, though it took time to do so. 

I will say, however, this particular point might be the one that people struggle the most with as they read. It really is its own unique style.

As with most noir books, the plot starts out small and then gets bigger and bigger as things keep moving along. Alex Southerland gets hired by the obligatory beautiful woman. On the surface things look like they’ll be pretty open and shut, but as soon as Alex starts poking around, that ball starts rolling, getting larger and larger as it goes. Basically, Alex soon learns he’s in over his head. He’s mired in a mystery he doesn’t quite understand, and it’s far larger than he ever anticipated. Soon, he’s being threatened, and framed for murder, and right when you think there’s no way this is going to end well for anyone involved, there’s a delightful twist. Like most noir books, I often found myself wondering when this guy managed to take a break, but that again seems to be a bit of the style with these books. The ball gets rolling, and it just does not stop until the very last page, with a very satisfying ending.

One thing I loved about this book was the early 1900s vibe, which felt so true to the story being told. Small details added in here or there gave the novel a very vintage feel mixed with modern details. It was truly unique and something that really stuck out as I read. Alex is a bit more modern in this setting, and some of the issues he deals with have been likewise smoothed out and modernized. But the feel is there, and it’s strong. From occasional slang, to how people dress, and various other aspects of the book, I just truly loved this balance of vintage and modern that Lumsden struck. 

So, where does this leave us? 

Breakneck and packed with unexpected twists, A Troll Walked into a Bar grew on me. A true fantasy noir in every sense of the word, this book is sure to appeal to fans of hardboiled detective stories. 

4/5 stars