"Blood Standard" Book Review
Written by Shane D. Keene
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Written by Laird Barron
2018, 336 pages, Fiction
Released on May 29, 2018
In his foreword to The Annotated Big Sleep, author Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Feral Detective) writes:
If Raymond Chandler wrote, in Ross McDonald’s famous words, like “a slumming angel,” it was precisely because the finicky, super-literate, English-prep-school-educated Chandler stands somehow inside and outside his own conception simultaneously.
The reason for quoting that? Because I couldn’t say it any better than Lethem does and it describes precisely what horror and now crime writer Laird Barron does with his newest novel, Blood Standard. He manages to inject his own brand of “super-literacy” into his narrative in a way that nobody else could and the settings that have had an effect on his own personal development are deeply infused within his prose. His is a voice of hard experience and high education, one tempered by a deep sense of humanity and his own place within it, and he embraces the poetry of emotion and violence in equal measures here, giving us a protagonist so achingly broken and real our hearts bleed and painting a landscape that’s dark and uncomfortable yet oddly reminiscent of home.
Isaiah Coleridge is a mob enforcer in the cold wastelands of Alaska. When he gets into trouble after hospitalizing a superior, his bosses relocate him to upstate New York with the disclaimer that he’s not allowed to freelance. But trouble has a way of following him around like a lost puppy and it isn’t long before he finds himself knee-deep in shit again, hunting down a gang of ruthless outlaws in an endeavor to find a missing girl whose grandparents he’s become close to. Coleridge is a complex figure that breaks off from the white bread themes of past masters. Multi-layered, and atypically non-white, he’s a part Maori individual with a high intellect and education. And, to finish beating this dead horse to further mutilation, he’s got highly developed and intensely studied (on Barron’s part) daddy issues trailing back to the horrific circumstances of his mother’s death, adding even more story levels to this unusually literary addition to the annals of classic noir. On the surface he’s your average noir protagonist: tough, mean, amoral, a person who bulls his way through situations with flashes of sudden, willful violence, but his ethnic background and superior intelligence separate him from the herd, causing him to stand out as one of the most original animals of his breed. Barron is a master when it comes to breaking molds and with Blood Standard he take’s Thor’s hammer and completely shatters the character form.
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. Understand, I’m tough as nails. Even so, I’ve got my limits. You don’t need a mallet to take me apart. Let me stew in my own misery. Let me drown in what-ifs and maybes.
And speaking of Isaiah’s namesake – I didn’t, but let’s pretend I did – Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of the writer’s contract with the reader as “That willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith.” This is something that Barron does right from the first paragraph, taking out an intellectual line of credit with the reader that subsists throughout the novel.
As a boy, I admired Humphrey Bogart in a big way. I coveted the homburg and trenchcoat. 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.
That is one of the most perfect hooks in the history of the genre. It should be taught in classrooms and lecture halls. It grabs readers with the first breath and holds their rapt attention. The voice and cadence of it mesmerize and the vivid imagery enraptures and captivates them and that “willing suspension of disbelief” is virtually instantaneous and abiding. Be assured you will not want to put this book down. And, to expand on Coleridge’s quote, that’s the full contract the author signs with the reader, offering a trustworthy promise in the very first passage that what you are about to read is something special and worthy of your full attention.
The next step is to actually fulfill that promise and Barron does so sweepingly, infusing his storyline with the spirits of horror that he’s so familiar with, bringing a particularly intense darkness to a field that’s already dripping with it, offering unflinching flashes of violence and graphically explicit descriptions of the blood and gore associated with it. The dialogue is as pitch perfect as it gets and no reviewer could say enough about just how perfect his characters are. I’ve already raved and swooned over his protagonist, but really he’s just the tip of the iceberg. The author shores him up heavily with a remarkable set of supporting figures, from gangsters to farmers, acrobats, and freelance mercenaries across vast ranges of the social and racial spectrums of modern society, giving us one of the most diverse and colorful casts to ever appear in the genre.
And to cap all that off, Barron presents us with his superior storytelling ability and an in-depth knowledge and love of the English knowledge, giving us a perfectly penned story that’s sure to appeal to the masses of crime, horror, and thriller fans. Blood Standard is a dark, rough ride that drags us across the coarse gravel at the heart of every great noir tale, leaving us breathless, broken, and bloody, shattered on the concrete of this harsh, heartbreaking, but ultimately satisfying narrative that takes its readers to the very heart of literary darkness.
Laird Barron, one of horror’s true masters, shows us with this tale that what he really is is just a stellar wordsmith who can find comfort and success no matter what the endeavor and here, with this amazing novel from G.P. Putnam’s Sons, he’s penned one of the best crime novels of the decade so far, a book that’s sure to be peppered profusely across “best-of-year” lists in multiple genres. I may be about to commit sacrilege here, but I would be fine if he never set pen to another horror novel again and turned the whole of his attention to crime fiction. Isaiah Coleridge is one of the most perfect noir character’s I’ve encountered and I can only hope – there is hope – to see much more of him in future entries from this amazing author.