It really shouldn’t be a surprise that Laird Barron can write straight-up crime fiction; after all, in his short fiction, Barron has shown a love of mixing hard-boiled noir with Lovecraftian horrors on numerous occasions. So why not take on crime, free of cosmic horror, but with plenty of focus on the evil in the hearts of men? All of which gives us Blood Standard, Barron’s first hard-boiled noir novel, and his first starring half-Maori former mob enforcer Isaiah Coleridge, a literate, hulking man capable of dishing out (and taking) brutal harm but attempting to figure out his own moral code.
If you’ve read Barron before – and really, you should have, if you’re into horror at all – it’ll be no surprise that what you get in Blood Standard is beautifully written and crafted prose, with a literary feel that never becomes pretentious, but a willingness to go brutal and bloody when the story demands it. What’s fascinating, though, is the way that Barron has created a character that contains all of those same contradictions and complexities, incarnating the perfect representation of Barron’s prose and worldview. Here’s a character raised with a deep love of literary classics (Roman myths, Beowulf, etc.) but also a brutally violent Mafia enforcer. A man hardened by life in Alaska but also a man whose devotion to his dog has shaped his emotional life forever. A man capable of inflicting brutal, horrifying pain on another human being without so much as a sliver of guilt, but also one who finds himself trying to save a girl from her fate for fear that he can’t live with the consequences. Coleridge is an archetypal hard-boiled noir hero in so many ways – capable of anything, but with a decent core that he may not even be aware of – but in Barron’s hands, he becomes wholly his own creation, one that stands out from the crowd.
And that’s good, because while the story of Blood Standard is an effective one – dealing with Coleridge’s separation from the mob and his sudden plunge into something like detective work – in its broad strokes, it’s fairly traditional fare. The daughter of a couple who’s taken him in has gone missing, with most of the signs pointing towards some shady characters, and Coleridge is attempting to save her. Nothing groundbreaking, and while the ultimate resolution is an interesting one, this feels more like Barron trying something more akin to a traditional formula before branching out. That’s maybe most notably proven by some of the strange edges around the borders of the story, like a brief sojourn into a Nazi bar, or an encounter with a fearsome mother who proves that she’s not to be trifled with in no uncertain terms. It’s in these moments that we best see what Barron is capable of, stretching the boundaries of genre while respecting all of the things that make it appealing in the first place.
But even with some of those more cautious first steps, Blood Standard is a great read, one with all of the myriad pleasures Barron brings to readers, all with the added bonus of watching as he tries on a new genre and shows off his skills there as well. This may be only his first step into this world, but he’s already far beyond what so many others have done years in – so bring on more Isaiah Coleridge!
Originally, Richard Price planned on releasing The Whites under the pen name “Harry Brandt,” saying that he wanted to separate the novel’s more commercial, plot-driven aspects from his usual writing. It’s a decision he didn’t stick with, obviously, and has made numerous jokes about, remarking in one interview that he realized that the novel would be just “another damn book by me” too late into the process.
All of which is to say, it’s not surprising that The Whites feels like an uneasy union between a traditional hard-boiled police procedural and Price’s more thoughtful, internally driven novels focused on social factors. The hook is pulpy enough – an NYPD detective named Billy Graves starts realizing that numerous “white whales” (hence the title) that have gotten away with horrible crimes on various technicalities keep turning up dead, and starts investigating – and once you mix in the way that another officer begins slowly stalking and terrorizing Graves and his family in payback for a long-ago crime, you’ve got a pulpy setup for revenge and hard-boiled retribution.
But that’s not really entirely Price’s style, and while The Whites gives us a good mystery to hang onto and some tightly paced thrills, Price keeps turning the novel into something more complex and introspective, making us understand not only the appeal for revenge but turning it into a question that touches on religion, divine purpose, and a lack of justice in the world. And while Price never comes across as pro-vigilante justice, he never forgets the way that grief can impact people and tear apart families, leading to victims not only of the original crimes, but victims of the rippling consequences that spread out from them. And, as if that’s not complicated enough, Price realizes that you can’t take on the idea of murdered suspects without taking on questions about police brutality, racial profiling, and more, and while The Whites never quite dives into those aspects fully, they undeniably linger around the edges of the novel, informing the debates and shaping characters’ reactions to what’s going on.
With all of that thrown into the mix, as you might imagine, The Whites turns from a pulpy revenge thriller into something far more complex, and that juxtaposition doesn’t always entirely work. Price’s work often works best when he lets his characters drive the story, keeping the plots simple and allowing internal monologues and psychological complexities be the hook for our story. Here, The Whites sometimes struggles to hold up under the weight of its characters, as though Price really wanted to deliver a nasty noir novel and instead couldn’t help but turn it into a character study in which these people’s decisions are rendered in all of their complexity and nuance.
That all may make for an uneasy marriage of elements, but it also means that The Whites is a rich, engrossing novel, even if its one that feels like its story is holding it back some. (For instance, it’s worth noting that the novel’s best scene involves an interrogation sequence which has no bearing on either of the main plot threads, and yet whose emotional impact has stuck with me for many days, long after I finished the book.) But maybe that’s the best thing about The Whites; what you’re expecting is a lurid noir tale, but what you get is something more sophisticated, more nuanced, and more complicated, giving us not archetypes but people, not bloodless murders but awful crimes, not easy motivations but complex reasoning, and not easy answers but instead an awful uncertainty. Maybe that’s what makes it a better book than you’d expect it to be.
- Blood Standard: ****
- The Whites: ****