Book Review : Laird Barron - Black Mountain (2019)
Laird Barron’s mob enforcer turned private detective Isaiah Coleridge is a character of his time. He’s not outside the law, like… let’s say Philip Marlowe or Travis McGee were. He is the law. Coleridge confidently navigates the underworld like a beacon of righteousness on a moonless night. That’s what makes him interesting. In a world run by psychopaths, he dictates the rules with both force and compassion wherever he goes. So, I was pretty excited to read Black Mountain, the second volume of Isaiah Coleridge’s investigations.
And it’s good. There’s a standard of quality to what Laird Barron does and Black Mountain doesn’t undermine that. But it’s the first time his writing doesn’t sweep me off my feet.
In Black Mountain, Isaiah Coleridge is summoned by a local mobster to investigate the murder of Harold Lee, a small-time enforcer who was found without his head and hands in the Ashokan reservoir. And he’s not the first thug to suffer such a violent and undignified ending. A dark secret in the local underworld resurfaces with these murders: a legendary contract killer named The Croatoan seems to have gone inexplicably rogue. This time, Coleridge mission isn’t to find a little girl. It’s to stop someone who could probably give him lessons on how to deal with organized crime.
One interesting detail that changes the entire trajectory of Black Mountain is that the victims are disposable. They’re career criminals who lived by the sword and very much died by it Because Laird Barron doesn’t spend much time fleshing them and their surviving relatives out, so it shifts the focus towards The Croatoan. On top of being a mystery, Black Mountain is also a boogeyman story with freaky horror undertones. The antagonist isn’t a bland avatar of evil, he’s a dark reflection of Coleridge himself. He doesn’t even need to be on the page make his presence felt.
So, I enjoyed the narrative of Black Mountain considerably more than its predecessor Blood Standard. But it had a frustrating lack of nuance. Isaiah Coleridge is narrating the novel in the first person and he sounds like someone deliberately trying to make himself look like the good guy. His wisecracking banter doesn’t sound confident, it sounds childish and arrogant. Even when he’s trying to help (i.e the Aubrey Plantagenet storyline), he comes off as patronizing. That can partially be explained by the lack of interesting characters outside of himself, The Croatoan and his (I believe) dead mentor Gene.
I mean, if you challenge an idiot to a weight lifting contest, that makes you also an idiot, right? *
It’s uncharacteristic of Laird Barron to write like this. Blood Standard also suffers from this juvenile vision of masculinity, but it was to a much lesser degree. In his short stories, Barron is really adept at writing inner darkness. His characters are moved by inexorable forces they’re not always aware of. I know they’re different and that the Isaiah Coleridge novels are not horror, but he would sorely benefit from not being in such perfect control of everything all the time. In Blood Standard , he had the storyline with his father to keep him in check and such an obstacle is absent from Black Mountain. Coleridge is just sweeping through the bad guys like a bulldozer.
I made a big deal out of the lack of nuance in Black Mountain. It slightly undermined the reading for me, but don’t get me wrong: it’s still a good novel. It’s a fierce and original blend detective novels and serial killer fiction. Think Ross MacDonald meets Netflix true crime documentaries. It’s really cool, right? It’s just that the way it was told got on my nerves a little bit. A lot of people liked it. I guess it’s a matter of opinion in the end, but it’s the first time a Laird Barron novel is somewhat of a mixed bag for me and I’m going through the steps of grief. Oh well, they can’t all be home runs. Can’t they? It’s not going to deter me from reading Laird Barron, but I might think twice about the next Isaiah Coleridge book.
* Oh yeah, it happens.