In Glen Cook’s land of Karenta, a stormwarden is the most venerated and powerful battle-mage; their role is that of general, commanding the armies of young conscripts thrown into the battlegrounds of the desolate Cantard like grist to the mill. Stormwardens are not to be treated lightly, nor people you’d want to mess with. Which says a lot when Karl, son of the Stormwarden Raver Styx, gets kidnapped and held hostage for the staggering sum of 200,000 gold marks. The only person with a reputation for helping get the hostage home alive is Garrett, private eye, which is why the Stormwarden’s steward—the Domina Willa Dount—brings him in to help with the case.
Or not; it turns out all Domina Dount wants is to hide behind Garrett’s reputation, not use his expertise, so he’s paid and sent home. But two things keep Garrett interested in the case. The first is the band of ogres that jump him on the way home. The second is the brutal murder of the Stormwarden’s adopted and pregnant daughter Amiranda Crest, a beautiful young woman with faerie blood who caught Garrett’s eye. Garrett gets the full story from one of his acquaintances—now near death from attempting to protect her—whom she’d hired for protection: panicked, she fled the city and was cut low by ogre breeds while waiting at a midnight rendezvous for some other person. Now, Garrett’s out for revenge, trying to find out who ordered the girl slain. And the more he noses into the plot, the more tangled and twisted it becomes.
Cook nails the argot and atmosphere of a ’30s noir to a T, with the wit and wordplay of Raymond Chandler and the hard-bitten, hard-boiled protagonist straight from Mickey Spillane. It goes above homage to have its own style, rife with sharp humor and subtle imagery and a fair share of blazing action. The first Garrett book wasn’t as much of a detective novel as an adventure romp, but here Cook drops his plucky protagonist into a labyrinthine kidnapping plot. Garrett is free to do a lot more detecting, wandering across a more confined urban backdrop to untangle the motives and next moves of the kidnappers.
Again, the original book worked its “mystery” by letting Garrett know clues that aren’t revealed to his comrades—or, visa versa—or by otherwise keeping important info them from the reader. Here, the same trick applies, but most of that is because Garrett himself isn’t 100% sure on what is going on. It turns out there are several factions and players who are behind the kidnapping, and as soon as Garrett takes the case they begin falling over themselves with twist after double-cross; as each diverts from the plan to further their own motives, it further complicates the web of intrigue that’s ever-expanding and threatening to explode on Garrett. And that’s even before the Stormwarden is sighted on her return trip home.
Cook’s creation is a skillful blend of genres; it takes a lot of bog-standard fantasy tropes and re-casts them to good effect, masking them in the grimy veneer of the film noir: half-breed hybrids become the underworld thugs, “hardware” refers not to pistols and Tommy guns but daggers and clubs. In my mind, mystery never lends itself to mix well with fantasy due to fantasy having the largest cheat in genre fiction—magic, which without rules and regulations, can answer any question and solve any crime. In Bitter Gold Hearts, we see the first detailed use of magic (other than witches’ charms), but it’s still got enough drawbacks and stipulations to prevent magic from finishing the plot in one fell swoop. Also: Garrett doesn’t use any, preferring to solve things the old-fashioned way, through legwork and deduction.
Even Cook’s most original creation—the Dead Man, member of a telepathic race who live on on well after death and decay set in, whose impressive intellect and immobility makes Garrett use him as combination sounding-board, antagonist roommate, and mystery-solving crutch—has limits to his power. Then again, the household relationship between Garrett, the Dead Man, and their household assistant Dean is one of Glen Cook’s many homages, as the three fill the same roles as Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe, and Fritz Brenner. Garrett does all the legwork and brings people in for questioning while the Dead Man lies affixed by rigor mortis and acts as the brains of the operation; their love-hate relationship and banter is part of the novel’s humor, like some twisted version of The Odd Couple. If the Dead Man just revealed the answers straight off, what fun would that be?
The name Bitter Gold Hearts is evocative for two reasons. First, one of the plots Garrett follows is the gold—the Stormwarden’s daughter hires Garrett to recover it so she can run off in luxury, and there’s a question of how and why such a large sum was used to pay the ransom, as well as where it went. Second, when Cook says “bitter,” he means it; this is the grey, bleak world of hardboiled fiction, depicting the sexualized, brutally violent underbelly of society. Most of the characters are not nice people and meet not nice ends. Even the likeable people—Garrett’s one-night-stand Amiranda for one—are trod underfoot by the bigger and nastier players in this great game. And while he may call the Dead Man a misogynist for losing interest in pleasures of the flesh, Garrett casts himself as a bit of a drunk and skirt-chasing womanizer.
The first Garrett, P.I. book was an enjoyable blending of genres; while I think it was stronger in many ways, Bitter Gold Hearts is closer to a more traditional detective novel with its entangled plot of intrigue. Despite that plot—which is about as straightforward as a big ball of yarn after being attacked by a dozen rampaging kittens—it’s easier to follow than its predecessor, and I think the more confined urban setting and mystery elements allow its noir side to shine. As much as I liked Sweet Silver Blues, I found some flaws to complain about; not so much with this one. If you enjoy a well-conceived fantasy novel on occasion, and would love to see it invaded by a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett point of view, this is the series for you.