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.