Book Review: Blood Standard by Laird Barron
Laird Barron is a writer’s writer who just so happens to define modern horror for reader’s also. Over the years, he has cultivated a reputation for himself as an author of broad influences and grand ambition—partly responsible for dragging cosmic horror back into the limelight, and then, in a move that can only be called Barronian—imbuing it with literary panache and hard boiled swagger. Laird Barron is one of the writers who guided me into the world of horror literature as I know it today—from his many introductions to others collections, to his championing of bygone artists like Tryon and Klein—Barron is a dude who knows genre.
So, here we have something new. This is the fabled break from the horror ghetto to grasp at mainstream success, this is the part where everyone wrings their hands a bunch. In Blood Standard, published by William Morrow, we have Barron tackling pure crime in book one of a series. As these things go, some fans will stomp their feet and complain of Barron leaving horror (which, somehow, I doubt is the plan), but they’d be doing the man and his work a disservice, because Blood Standard may be some of the best writing he’s done to date.
This isn’t selling out. This is Barron zeroing in on a nearly pervasive element of his work. Whether it’s Old Leech or Andy Kaufman lurking in the shadows, make no mistake—those shadows belong to noir. Thompson, Chandler, Cain, and Hammett have always been in the background of Barron’s stories, a Mt. Rushmore of influences informing his tough talking protagonist, with their hard-drinks, and harder breaks.
The story is an old one, with a couple tweaks for the modern age, but it can boiled down to this: a guy looking for a girl. Isaiah Coleridge is the guy in question—a half Maori mob enforcer with a quick wit and a penchant for cracking bones. Barron proves he understands the genre intrinsically with his protagonist. With these sorts of stories, the star is the star—which is to say, that we gotta be able to stomach the mook whose head we’re inhabiting. And Isaiah Coleridge is is the sort of guy you don’t mind hanging around. An animal lover, a student of mythology, and a stone-cold killer—he’s big, he’s tough, and he’s relentless. Throughout Blood Standard, we find Isaiah Coleridge kicking the hornet’s nest and taking his licks. And this is something Barron does really well, grounding his larger-than-life character. It’s a balancing act, but he comes out electric, funny, and fully alive on the page, making Isaiah Coleridge a worthy addition to the noir pantheon.
Things go the only way things can go in stories like these—south. The daughter of the family Isaiah’s been staying with disappears, and he can’t let it go without a fight. On his odyssey to find the girl, Isaiah ping-pongs off underworld gangs, deadly mountain folk, and amoral mercenaries. The world he paints reminds me a little of the heightened reality from the John Wick movies—albeit more grounded—a funhouse distortion of the real thing, adding a bit of mystery and intrigue to the way his characters operate.
Barron manages to give the story a social conscience too by making Coleridge mixed-race, and in doing so we get a perspective we don’t usually see in these sorts of stories (look back to Chandler to see how non-whites got portrayed in the genre’s old days). The commentary is light, but crucial and fundamental to Coleridge’s perspective, just as it is to the girl he’s trying to find. Reba Walker, black—and in the world of cable news that means: unlikely to be found. Blood Standard is not a morality tale by any stretch of the imagination, but the way it uses race as an undercurrent feels new and novel for noir.
The nuts and bolts here are polished too. And when I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more concise book. Blood Standard moves at a lightning pace with clipped prose and fast-talking dialogue; and when the action comes, Barron makes sure you feel every hit. The chapters are short, so short that you can imagine it being decimated over and over by the hand of an experience editor—leaving nothing but the cleanest, most efficient wording. There’s almost something utilitarian about the writing here—Blood Standard is polished steel, a razor on paper, defined by its purpose, slicing through scenes and characters so fast you don’t realize how far you’ve gone until you’re on the other side.
The best thing I can say about Blood Standard is that I had a helluva lot of fun reading it. Just as he’s done so many other times, Barron knocked it out of the park, and just as he dragged us into the world of a carnivorous cosmos, it looks like he’ll have us all by the collar again. The genre may be different this time around, but the writing still crackles and the characters still throw back whiskey like its water. Laird Barron is growing up, stretching his limbs and talents, and I’m glad he’s got Isaiah Coleridge to help smooth the process.