Hope Mirrlees wrote "Lud-in-the-Mist" (***-, on an uncalibrated four-point scale) in 1926, but you wouldn't know by reading it. You wouldn't think it a contemporary fantasy, either. It doesn't categorize well -- an odd and quiet fantasy in which the heroes are complacent burghers, the nearest thing to fighters are some underworked police, the villains may or may not be villainous, and the magic may or may not be magical.
Lud-in-the-Mist is the capital of Dorimare. The town is rich, self-satisfied, and aggressively unimaginative and prosaic. Being unimaginative and prosaic is a bit of a challenge when you're just across the border from Faerie, but perhaps for that reason the merchants of Lud-in-the-Mist put a lot of imagination into the effort. For instance, not only is the importation of fairy fruit illegal, but fairy fruit is deemed not to even exist: People who are arrested for selling fairy fruit must defend themselves against a charge of smuggling silk.
Fairy fruit does exist, however, and people who eat of it become unsuited to the thorough mundanity of Lud-in-the-Mist. When the entire student body of Miss Primrose Crabapple's Establishment for Young Ladies dances off for the hills, it becomes clear that the encroachment of Faerie influence is getting out of hand.
Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, High Seneschal of Dorimare, and a couple of etceteras, is the most determinedly prosaic of Lud's merchants -- though being prosaic takes more determination than usual in his case. Then there is the doctor, Endymion Leer, who is in the thick of the matter -- every man's confidant, dispensing plausible advice to all and sundry, and somehow encouraging the general impression that the trouble is all Nathaniel's fault. And, in the background, there is Duke Aubrey, who was toppled from his throne two centuries ago, and is reputed to still trouble the countryside.
When Nathaniel Chanticleer starts investigating, he finds evidence of the uncanny which is hard to ignore -- but he also finds evidence which points to a thoroughly mundane murder years back, and an equally mundane ring of smugglers in current operation. Are we dealing with rogues who are hiding behind a supernatural facade or with a supernatural presence in workaday guise?
The book ends somewhat abruptly. Beyond the direct role of Faerie in the plot, Mirrlees uses it as a metaphor for the artistic and aesthetic dimension which gives the purely mundane side of life meaning and value. In the final reconciliation of the two, however, plot is sacrificed somewhat for the benefit of metaphor. The result is not one of the great works of fantasy, but it is one which retains its charm after two thirds of a century, and still repays reading.
%A Mirrlees, Hope
%I Ballantine%D 1970
%O This is a reprint, the original having appeared in 1926
%O Also, someone recently posted that LUDMIST1.ZIP can be found
%O on a number of BBS's, but I don't know its copyright status.
Dani Zweig firstname.lastname@example.org