Here's yet another urban-fantasy/crime-thriller hybrid. Good thing #1: it's not a Jim Butcher knockoff. In his debut novel, Bostonian Mark Del Franco takes an entirely straight-faced approach to the hard-boiled detective/police procedural template, keeping the snark to a minimum even when presenting us with dead fey prostitutes. Bad thing #1: this means that, for much of the book, Del Franco doesn't do much with that template other than mine it for clichés. We have the grim loner detective hero with a checkered past, we have his sympathetic cop friend, we have the serial killings that seem inconsequential prostitute murders until the involvement of powerful politicos reveals there's more than meets the eye, and we have the requisite scenes in which our hero takes a beating. We don't exactly have the femme fatale, though we do have a couple of femmes you don't want to mess with.
Overall, the fantasy elements are very attentively realized while the crime stuff sticks to formula. Del Franco has imagined a world in which an event years ago called the Convergence resulted in the transposition of numerous denizens of the realm of Faerie into our world, where they have since tried to fit in and get along. There's prejudice, naturally, but an accord of sorts has been reached. Mostly, it's fey against fey, as conflict between the elves and fairies mirrors the bitter struggles between Northern Ireland's Catholics and Protestants. (Not for nothing does Del Franco have a fey summit meeting taking place in Ireland.)
Conner Grey is a fey of the druid race, whose magical abilities were all but nullified in a run-in with (and this is the book's most cloying and on-the-nose joke) a radical environmentalist elf. Grey now lives in the fey ghetto of Boston called the Weird, where his Sympathetic Cop Friend Murdock enlists his aid on minor fey-related crimes that the fey Guild doesn't care to investigate.
When a serial killer begins cutting up fey male hookers, taking their hearts, and replacing them with magical stones, Grey assumes there's some powerful magic involved. But little does he know how ambitious a series of crimes these are, as, for no immediately apparent reason, high-ranking fey Guild members muscle in on the investigation. As you might be guessing by now, things move through a series of nasty encounters and warnings to keep his nose out of things before Grey learns the killings are part of a potentially cataclysmic plot.
Del Franco at first falls into the common debut-novelist trap of getting way too prolix. He doesn't exactly infodump, but the first several chapters of the novel are busily plot-driven, and the characters make little impression as much more than stock role-players. Serial killer stories — a fine example of which would be Thomas Harris's two Hannibal Lecter novels that don't suck, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs — are at their best when they create a terrifying sense of urgency, a palpable fear in the reader that this guy has to be caught now before he kills again. Unshapely Things doesn't quite evoke that sense of urgency.
But interest is maintained, in the end, because while the book is only a so-so crime story, it's an engaging urban fantasy. Granted, it's better for the atmosphere and action than for any blazing originality, but the tale is told quite skillfully. The story finally kicks into gear in the last hundred pages; a good thing, as I've read many debut novels that follow the opposite trajectory, opening with their very best scenes then losing steam well before the climax. I enjoyed the way Del Franco developed the history of his Convergent world, and made his worldcraft actually relevant to his unfolding plot. (Said plot gets perhaps a bit too twisted and complicated for its own good, but perhaps Del Franco is just a Dashiel Hammet disciple in that regard.) Conner Grey, who, to be honest, begins the book as something of a cipher, ultimately becomes a likable guy. Things culminate in what I have to admit is a bravura finale. The sequel setup is too obvious, but that's how books like this are these days. If you've been a follower of this subgenre of fantasy since it's become popular over the last few years, then you'll probably find Unshapely Things to your liking. If you aren't a convert yet, this isn't the book that will work its magic on you.