Morning is wonderful. Its only drawback is that it comes at such an inconvenient time of day.
While I’m not much of a fantasy fan, there are a couple of authors in the genre I track down with enthusiasm: George R.R. Martin is one, Glen Cook is another. I know it has flaws, but I loved Cook’s Black Company series, and when I heard he did a series of fantasy noir novels starring Garrett, P.I., I put them on my list. Lo and behold, Roc Books released a pair of three-in-one anthologies of the Garrett books in the last few years, making them a cinch to track down.
Private eye Garrett, ex-Marine, hasn’t been doing so well of late, stuck between employers until one real doozy of a job lands in his lap: the dwarven relatives of his war buddy Denny show up, wanting him to investigate Denny’s unexpected death. Garrett declines at first, suspicious. He declines again when Denny’s old man unveils a massive cache of silver Denny and his former squadmates were amassing through market manipulation, all willed to a woman none of Denny’s relatives has heard of before. After getting roughed up by mysterious third-parties, and offered a sizable share of the silver, Garrett finally caves and takes the case, bringing in acquaintance Morley Dotes and three monstrous, part-human Grolls as muscle.
As it turns out, Garrett may need that firepower sooner than he thinks. Not only does he have several different groups of thugs hot on his tail, but the investigation will take him back out onto the Cantard—a merciless no-man’s-land between the two warring kingdoms, filled with enemy patrols, centaur marauders, flesh-eating unicorns, and darker creatures of the night. When Garrett realizes the woman to inherit Denny’s fortune was his old war flame, the pieces fall into place, and it seals the deal: Garrett will close this case. Provided it doesn’t kill him, first.
The noir/hardboiled detective genre is a dark, violent, and sexualized one, hence the cover blurbs proclaiming how Cook brought a dose of “gritty realism” to the fantasy genre. I’m not convinced that it is indeed “gritty,” though it’s a radical departure from the traditional David Eddings/Terry Brooks type of high fantasy, or the swords-and-barbarians stuff following in the wake of the Conan revival, both of which dominated the genre in the ’70s and early ’80s. Instead, Cook wrote a hard-hitting fantasy novel in a ’30s noir tone. Granted, I think Cook leans too far back and could have incorporated more modern elements—I find misogyny in late ’80s books more unforgivable than misogyny in a novel written in 1929—but I think it succeeds at fusing the two genres while infusing them with unique new elements.
Noir is filled with its own conceits and clichés, and you need some familiarity with that genre to see some of Sweet Silver Blues‘s references. Garrett’s witty, ironic dialogue rings of Raymond Chandler, including some real gems of bleak humor. The story shares many elements, including story structure, with the Nero Wolfe novels. Cook gave the Garrett books names that echo John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, with an emphasis on metals instead of colors (e.g., Cook’s Sweet Silver Blues, Bitter Gold Hearts, Cold Copper Tears, etc. compared to MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye, A Purple Place For Dying, The Quick Red Fox, Nightmare in Pink, etc.). Heck, Garrett’s name itself being a homage to Randall Garrett, who authored a series of fantasy-detective mashups starring Lord Darcy, Chief Forensic Investigator for the Duke of Normandy in an alternate 1920s.
Cook’s Black Company novels don’t approach fantasy in a traditional direction, and the Garrett books take yet another approach, adding a 1930s twist to the world and inverting many fantasy staples. It’s great to see so many of the fantasy tropes spun on their heads: the various half-human species, like the half-elven Morley and the Grolls, with their sub-human roles fit the gritty noir underworld to a T; the subverted roles of the centaurs, unicorns, and dwarves is impressive; the traditional fantasy world in the midst of its own World War is a great place to stick noir. Best of all are the loghyr, a race of Cook’s invention retains its spirit and sentience for decades after death—something like a psychic ghost suck inside the body of a long-dead corpse. The Dead Man is one such loghyr, who collects information and exchanges advice with Garrett.
One of the old mystery cliches is that of withholding information for the proper big reveal, lampooned so well in Murder By Death. That trope shows up too often in Sweet Silver Blues, with information hidden for later purposes (sometimes never to be revealed at all), making it feel like Cook came up with the plot as it came along: the mystery is flimsy and mercurial, an excuse for an otherwise grand adventure in world-building. The book meanders, but it does so pleasantly (at least in my opinion), covering a lot of ground and introducing a lot of interesting world details. It’s hard to follow at times, especially when key information is withheld, and Cook’s blunt but metaphor-laden prose would now and then muddle things further. While Sweet Silver Blues can be a demanding book, patience paid off, and being already familiar with the aesthetic and prose styles I loved every minute of it.
I had a blast reading Sweet Silver Blues; it spun a lot of the tired and predictable fantasy tropes on their heads, and better, read like a perfect homage to the Chandler school of private detectives. I have a harder time, though, recommending it. The novel’s noir side felt stronger to me than its fantasy one, and though it blended them well, I see it appealing more to mystery readers who dabble in fantasy than for readers who stick with one genre or the other. Impressive creativity, strong wit, and excellent Chandleresque style struggle against a disjointed plot that oft becomes confusing, leaving it a mixed but thoroughly enjoyable read. If you have the same tastes that I do, it’ll be worth your time.