G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018, 321 pages
A novel set in the underbelly of upstate New York that's as hard-boiled and punchy as a swift right hook to the jaw, a classic noir for fans of James Ellroy and John D. Macdonald.
Isaiah Coleridge is a mob enforcer in Alaska - he's tough, seen a lot, and dished out more. But when he forcibly ends the money-making scheme of a made man, he gets in the kind of trouble that can lead to a bullet behind the ear. Saved by the grace of his boss and exiled to upstate New York, Isaiah begins a new life, a quiet life without gunshots or explosions. Except a teenage girl disappears, and Isaiah isn't one to let that slip by. And delving into the underworld to track this missing girl will get him exactly the kind of notice he was warned to avoid.
At turns brutally shocking and darkly funny, heartbreaking and cautiously hopeful, Blood Standard is both a high-tension crime novel and the story of a man's second chance - the parts of his past he will never escape, and the parts that will shape his future.
I’m comfortable with old, old places, places hostile to evolved life. My longest and best home, Alaska, is such a one: a vast, wind-blasted vista of mountain and river and sea as ancient as the bedrock of the world itself. Large and largely empty. Inhuman, yet aware on some primal frequency. Palpably malevolent in its indifference, Alaska is a land where winter kills off wolves and caribou alike and breeds creeping, deadly cabin fever that does in scores of men and women every year.
I was introduced to Laird Barron by way of his horror fiction, which is top notch in both literary style and creepiness. A worthy heir to Lovecraft and Poe, Barron works the Alaskan wilderness and the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest like Stephen King works Maine. But he has apparently decided that crime fiction is where the money's at, hence his new Isaiah Coleridge series.
Coleridge is built on the "big lug with a warm mushy center" archetype, but that warm mushy center is buried pretty deep, beneath a layer of callouses, scar tissue, and daddy issues. He's half Maori and all killer. His father was a high-ranking Air Force officer with connections all over, before he killed Isaiah's mother in an "accident," leaving Isaiah angry, angry, angry and just waiting for his chance to take vengeance against his old man. That's all backstory (which we get in snippets here and there throughout the book), but when we first meet him, he's working for the Alaskan mob (yes, there's an Alaskan mob) as an enforcer with a lethal rep. He cleans up messes for the Outfit. I.e., he kills guys who get out of line. Or sometimes just breaks them. He's not too particular.
As a boy, I admired Humphrey Bogart in a big way. I coveted the homburg and trench coat. I wanted to pack heat and smoke unfiltered cigarettes and give them long-legged dames in mink stoles the squinty-eyed once-over. I longed to chase villains, right wrongs, and restore the peace. Upon surviving into manhood, I discovered the black and comedic irony that is every gumshoe’s existential plight, the secret that dime novels and black-and-white movies always elide: each clue our intrepid detective deciphers, each mystery he unravels, each crime he solves, makes the world an unhappier place. I got smart and became a gangster instead. More money, more women, and better clothes. Much less in the way of mystery. As for the misery quotient? Basically a wash.”
He's out on an ice floe with a capo from Chicago, whom he's supposed to be keeping an eye on. The Chicago guy has brought a bunch of the boys out on a boat, it turns out to slaughter some walruses. Partly for their ivory, and partly because why not?
Coleridge can watch people die without flinching, but something snaps when this city slicker schmuck decides to gun down a bunch of dumb animals for no good reason. He karate chops the guy in the throat. End of the hunting trip. They all return without any walrus tusks. Except Coleridge just wrecked the singing career of a made man, and that has repercussions.
I took a measure of morbid pride in their professionalism and their fear. Tony Flowers and a couple of goons stripped me to my boxers. They chained me in the center of a ten-by-twenty concrete subbasement cell. I’m a big man, so the fellows used a lot of chain. The chair was solid wrought iron and looked as if it had been unbolted from the deck of a trawler. Dirty fluorescent bulbs pulsed overhead. The chamber reeked of bleach and mildew.
Thanks to his rep and his father's connections, he gets a stay of execution from the head of the Alaskan Outfit. Instead, he's put out to pasture — literally. He's sent to work at a horse farm in upstate New York, run by a nice couple who owes a few favors and has made their farm into something of a refuge for wayward mob killers, vets with PTSD, and other assorted ne'er do wells.
Coleridge is supposed to stay out of trouble, naturally, but a teenage girl who's the granddaughter of some friends of the farm owners gets herself in deep with the local bad boys. Coleridge has a soft spot for her because she's a hellion who's mean to everyone but horses. When she disappears and the cops don't care (they're all crooked, and also, she's black), he starts an investigation of his own. Thus begins a bloody epic saga like the labors of Hercules or the journey of Odysseus.
The classical Greek references are intentional. Barron laces the book with them. The boss of the Alaskan mob is "Mr. Apollo." Coleridge is actually nicknamed "Hercules," and the lady friend he hooks up with is named Meg — short for Megara. He travels through the underworld and slays monsters, and while the dog he carries off may not have three heads, it's still another clever little allusion.
I was Oppenheimer’s dread in microcosm, a miniature atom bomb. A destroyer of small things. Not worlds, nothing so grand, but individual bodies, individual lives. In little more than a week I’d crossed purposes with mercenaries, gangsters, white supremacists, hillbilly moonshiners, gangbangers, and Feds. Blood had spilled. As ever, blood was the currency of my existence. Blood was the standard.
Coleridge loves violence. He takes inhuman amounts of punishment in this book, and stares death in the face without blinking. He breaks many bones and sheds buckets of blood, stabbing and chopping and shooting his way through a primeval landscape of Mohawk gangsters, Mafia hitmen, backwoods moonshiners, crooked cops, and treacherous Feds.
Despite all this prodigious violence, Coleridge never becomes a monster. He's not the brute killer he seems to be. He's very intelligent, even witty. The dialog is darkly humorous. Coleridge has got some issues with dear old dad, but mostly he's just one tough hombre with a soft spot for dumb animals and teenagers.
The journey from birth to darkness has its share of plot twists, reversals, and triumphs. Nonetheless, one must never forget it’s into the dark that we’re hurtling. We all shake hands with King Pluto.
I loved it. It was refreshing to have a male protagonist who's a bonafide bad-ass but not a Gary Stu. The ending is not exactly happy, but Coleridge is still in one piece, and he's set himself up as something of a "fixer" (not quite a private detective, but definitely no longer a hitter for the Mob), with a whole slew of connections for the author to draw on in the next book.
Blood Standard is great piece of modern noir, and while I hope Laird Barron hasn't abandoned horror, I will definitely follow this series.
Also by Laird Barron: My reviews of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, The Croning, and Occultation.
My complete list of book reviews.