has been published in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Plots with Guns, Crime Factory, Tough, and several other anthologies and web magazines. He lives and writes in Nebraska, where he lives with his family. An editor at Shotgun Honey, he is at work on his first novel, and can be found online by following @pauljgarth on Twitter.
Tuesday, November 14, 2023
Monday, June 3, 2019
G.P Putnam's Sons
Reviewed by Paul J. Garth
There are several scenes in Black Mountain, Laird Barron’s second crime novel, that see the protagonist of Barron’s series, Isaiah Coleridge, reflecting on a life lived in the shadow of inescapable death. The Shade has always been waiting, Coleridge recollects deathsheads and cosmic gloom as constant parts of his life.Through the course of these recollections, peppered throughout this gloriously plotted, violent, and fascinating novel, Isaiah reveals he’s done what most men cannot: instead of attempting to escape the shadow of death, he’s felt himself drawn to it. In Alaska, Coleridge’s former home before a mob-enforced exile, the two were joined as seamlessly as night falling over a distant, darkened peak.
When we first met Coleridge, in last year’s Blood Standard, this past before exile from the Outfit was only hinted at, shown in asides tossed between mobsters and mentors, quips made to button men, white supremacists, and mercs who had made the mistake of trying to intimidate Isaiah while his feet were still wet in a new setting, but the genuine weight of Coleridge’s past experience was mostly mentioned in asides or as window dressing to let you know how dangerous Coleridge could be. Blood Standard is a good book, a haymaker introduction to a wonderfully complex, caring, yet hostile new character operating in a non-traditional location, written by one of the last decade’s most exciting writers. Like Isaiah, however, there were times when it felt as though there was a component missing, some piece of the puzzle that had not yet been formed and placed. In short, it was very close to the book readers had imagined when they heard Laird Barron was trying his hand at writing noir novels, but not quite the whole.
Black Mountain changes that. In Black Mountain, all the pieces cohere, and Barron places each one meticulously, including some new ones, revealing something exciting, elemental, dark, and formidable. Black Mountain, in a just world, would put the rest of the crime fiction world on notice.
Set close to real time, Black Mountain sees Coleridge, still off his game by a step or two after working through the investigation in Blood Standard, hanging out a shingle as a PI. When his former associatescome to Coleridge looking for help tracking down who might be responsible for a made man ending up headless in a local lake, Coleridge takes the case. Through his investigation, Coleridge is thrown into a shadowy world of almost mythological hit-men, sinister corporations (including one that longtime Barron fans will relish seeing again), mob politics, femme fatales, bloodthirsty mercenaries, and dysfunctional families.
In lesser hands, Black Mountain could read like something overly familiar, a mix between Red Dragon and a Quarry novel, perhaps, but Barron eschews cheap plot twists and the know structures of the genre, preferring to take the story to new, stranger territory. That Coleridge’s ensuing search for answers is expertly plotted and ultimately leads to dark truths will not be a surprise for anyone who has previously read Barron, but what may be surprising is how organic and natural the investigation is. Isaiah Coleridge is not a trained detective, and he is certainly not a detective with enough experience to find someone even the FBI has spent years looking for, but he is tenacious, and he knows how to make people talk. Add in a deep personal insight into others and a doomed sense of self, and you’re left with a fantastically unique, even more deeply fleshed out protagonist in his second outing, one more comfortable with animal cunning than any kind of traditional investigative logic to lead him to the next inevitable step. Again, in less skilled hands, this would feel like a cheat, a series character being right because the plot demands it, but Barron is better than that. On occasion, he lets Coleridge fail or be wrong (this seems to be a theme with Barron and Coleridge--the fallibility of the investigator--that some may find off putting but others will think lends a level of authenticity to the proceedings). By working the clues and relying on his confidants, including an FBI agent who passes along critical but confounding information, Coleridge soon finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy both larger than most presented in noir fiction, and also one that is much more deadly: The Croatoan, Coleridge’s quarry, is ruthless, brilliant, and, the wiseguys whisper, potentially supernatural. A serial killer created by private corporations and the alphabet soup of nameless government agencies, the Croatoan is literally pulled from the innards of the earth, and just as Coleridge is hunting him, the Croatoan hunts Coleridge.
The plot of Black Mountain is fast-moving, intricate, expansive, and mysterious, but the major achievement of the novel is the atmosphere Barron creates, infecting the reader with some of Coleridge’s own sense of predetermined cosmic doom. The prose in Blood Standard was good, but it sometimes felt as though it had been muted or toned down, focusing more on birthing Coleridge’s voice than the prose style Barron was previously known for, but in Black Mountain, the two elements have been joined beautifully, establishing both a mood for the novel, an outlook for Coleridge, a sense of dangerous psychogeography with the setting, and a cold and brutal sense of impending death for everyone involved. Take, for example, the following scene, in which Coleridge investigates a warehouse in which the Croatoan might have worked decades before:
Hush prevailed as I moved inward and reached a set of doors marked RECEIVING. Old, old metal doors with metal handles. The left door was painted crimson, the right black, and, to either side, brick walls pallid as a dirty eggshell. The doors had been frequently repainted; a detail that inexplicably heightened my disquiet. Whatever had transpired in this area in the ‘60s and ‘70s lingered as a dim, psychic taint.All the above paints a picture of Black Mountain as a grim, death-obsessed book, but though the novel is made up of those elements, and though they are thematically necessary, such a picture would not fully capture Black Mountain as it is, as, amongst all the darkness, there are moments of light, as well. The supporting cast of the Isaiah Coleridge novels was perfect from the beginning, but they take on new life here, including shading Coleridge’s sidekick, Lionel, who, though he is almost as dangerous as Coleridge frequently behaves like a funny lovelorn teen; Devlin, a precocious kid who lights up the proceedings; Meg, Coleridge’s girlfriend, who delights in Coleridge and whose affection for him is contagious, yet she still relishes giving him a hard time; and an ever-evolving set of mobsters and wiseguys, all of whom seem to be as interested in throwing zingers as they are making money, committing crimes, and figuring out who killed their compatriots. In addition, there are scenes with Coleridge that move from blackly humorous to just flat out hilarious, including an encounter between Coleridge and a would be intimidation squad that somehow manages to be laugh out loud funny between all the gunshots and broken ribs.
Laird Barron has been writing professionally for almost two decades now, and his body of work is deep and full of incredible stories, but the move to crime fiction has given him a second life, stretching his skills and unique understanding of our world onto a genre that seems ready made for him. Asked a year ago what stories best showcased Barron’s talent, I may have replied with a long list of personal favorites: “Bulldozer”, “Hallucigenia”, “The Imago Sequence,” “The Broadsword”, “Occultation”, “--30--”, The Croning, “The Men from Porlock”, “The Redfield Girls”, “Hand of Glory”, “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees”, or “Frontier Death Song”.
Now, the answer is simple: Black Mountain. In Isaiah Coleridge, Barron has perfected a series protagonist who, though their survival is (mostly) assured, still plumbs the depths of genuine noir. This is the book crime fiction, a genre sometimes known for treading water, needs right now. This is, so far anyway, the best series crime novel of the year.
Monday, December 10, 2018
G.P. Putnam's Sons
reviewed by Paul J. Garth
Rumors of what would end up being Blood Standard, Laird Barron’s first mainstream crime novel, had been going around for years. As a devotee, I first heard whispers that Barron was writing a noir sometime in mid 2014; there were no other details to the gossip, no plot hints, character ideas, or even a sense of where the book would be set, but the rumors were more than enough to get anyone even slightly plugged into the gray area where crime fiction and horror fiction overlap very excited. Shortly afterward, when Barron confirmed in a Facebook post that he was in fact writing a noir novel, I don’t think anyone could have imagined a more perfect pairing.
Barron, the 21st century's undisputed king of cosmic horror has always had a soft spot for characters straight out of classic noir: whether it’s the Pinkerton or the private detective stumbling across unimaginable truths, the CIA spook or the grizzled military commander monkeying with things they do not truly understand, miners and geologists, comfortable only in solitude but forced to work together to stay alive, or the lavishly rich, surrounding themselves with potential victims. Barron’s collections were full of gruff men of action whose minds were destined to end up as broken as their bodies. The promise of those characters, and the language and atmosphere Barron used to wring every ounce of tension from their suffering, but set in a world in which Old Leech was not to reveal himself? It was almost too good to be true.
Enter Isaiah Coleridge, another of Barron’s signature hardscrabble heroes. A mob enforcer sent from the warm arms of The Outfit to the outer edges of the universe, in this case, Nome, Alaska, Coleridge witnesses a money-making slaughter scheme on the Chukchi Sea and, maybe for the first time in his life, does the right thing. Or the wrong.
Exiled for his sins against the Outfit to the quiet Hudson Valley of upstate New York and held in check by an awareness that the Outfit might come calling at any moment to collect their pound of flesh, Coleridge settles in to a quiet life on a farm. It’s only when Reba Walker, the farm owner’s granddaughter, goes missing, and Coleridge promises to find the girl, that he is pulled back into the world of greed and violence, and he jumps in with both feet.
The violence in Blood Standard isn’t meditative or philosophical as in the majority of Barron’s previous work. It simply is, an essential aspect of Coleridge’s life that is so commonplace it is barely worthy of note. Whether or not that is a good thing will be the cause of some debate among readers. The novel moves along at an almost impossible pace, most scenes action-packed and filled with growing mystery or tension or violence, but the language is clipped, especially in comparison to Barron’s horror work. In previous short story collections readers were treated to horrific imagery and the suggestion of the baroque and the grotesque awaiting behind even the most commonplace of items and incidents, elements which I think makes Barron one of the best prose stylists I’ve ever read. In Blood Standard, most of that is gone, excised instead for action and forward momentum, though Barron occasionally slows down the ass-kicking to deliver a knockout of a section, including the following plumbed from the depths of Isaiah’s fever dream:
I wandered through Elysian Fields and the Boar of the Wood hunted me, his tusks as sharp as spearheads. He felled the tall grass with each sideways swipe of his massive head. My grandfather, dressed in skins and a necklace of sharks’ teeth, floated always two places ahead his gaze serene as a storm cloud. He raised a flint ax and I woke, the blare of a conch horn trailing into the ether.
I’ll be honest and admit now that there were times when reading Blood Standard that I wished the Barron prose I’d fallen in love with would reappear, that I’d get more of the above, an exploration of the sense of cosmic doom that immediately follows a head cracking--an unconsciousness made of cold stars and the void behind them--but it’s also entirely possible that the only reason I wanted that is because that was the book I’d been imagining for four years, and it’s very likely that readers who haven’t read Barron's previous books won’t find anything amiss at all. Besides, Blood Standard is straightforward about the kind of book it is from the jump; if there’s ever been another book that greets the reader with a balled up knuckle sandwich right on the title page, I can’t think of it.
That’s not to say Blood Standard isn’t a recognizably Laird Barron novel, either, as it is absolutely packed with what some have come to call Barronisms, each circling one another, all of the converging and separating in Blood Standard s murky mystery. Lurking at the edge of the plot are unscrupulous FBI agents, a group of private military mercenaries working for an atrocity-prone organization known simply as Black Dog, mobsters (so many mobsters), a particularly bacchanalian Beltane fire celebration, and Isaiah’s father, a cold-hearted son of a bitch who, if he’d been copy-pasted into Barron’s first breakout story, “Old Virginia”, probably would have staved off all the miseries in that story and saved the day. Plus gallons of whiskey and racks and racks of guns.
It may seem amiss, at this point, that for book supposedly about the mystery of a missing girl, I haven’t discussed the mystery that much. That’s for two reasons. The first is that the mystery works perfectly well as a means to drive the plot forward, which is to be expected in a modern crime novel. Blood Standard performs admirably, each chapter deepening the mystery while also suggesting increasingly sinister explanations. But the more interesting reason to discuss everything but the mystery is that the resolution of what happened to Reba Walker may strike some readers as unsatisfying. At first, I might have agreed with those readers, but that’s only because it took me a while to understand that the potentially unsatisfying resolution of the mystery is exactly the point. Blood Standard is an action story wearing the skin of a mystery novel, but it’s also the story of Isaiah Coleridge and his attempt to find his place in a world where even the criminal rejects have rejected him.
A cross between Jack Reacher or Clyde Barr novels and some of Dennis Lehane’s more introspective and gothic work (Shutter Island and the displaced narrator of The Given Day seem like obvious touchpoints), Blood Standard is less about the mystery of what happened to Reba Walker and more about what Isaiah Coleridge--and men like him--have to do to survive the modern world. If Coleridge, with all his sins and his Barbarian nature, had been able to set the world right, it would ring false, like Barron were giving us a neat ending simply for its own sake, but as anyone who has read Barron before knows, he doesn’t believe in neat or happy endings: the universe is too complex for that, as even the section in which the resolution is revealed is titled “The Gordian Knot”.
A novel about an difficult man trying to resolve a hopeless mystery, while also trying to accomplish something else that may as well be impossible, starting a new life, Laird Barron’s first crime novel is as much a character study as a beat ‘em up, rich with all the signature themes longtime Barron readers know and love, while also being straightforward and action-focused enough to welcome a mainstream audience. Whatever comes next for Isaiah Coleridge will surely be haunting and difficult and expansive on the world created here, and if it’s half as much fun as Blood Standard, I can’t wait.