Book Review : Laird Barron - Blood Standard (2018)
The writing was on the wall for Laird Barron. Primarily known (and loved) for writing the meanest horror in the publishing game, he’d been experimenting with loosely related genres in recent releases like X for Eyes, Man with No Name and the most excellent short story collection Swift to Chase. It was a matter of time before Barron would publish a mystery. That day has come, the mystery is titled Blood Standard and it is both wildly different and right on par with expectations. It is gorgeously crafted, nuanced in surprising places and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Laird Barron, to be honest.
Blood Standard is the story of Isaiah Coleridge, a disgraced Alaskan mob enforcer laying low in upstate New York after freaking out during a particularly gory walrus hunt and hurting a made man. He is stashed away on a horse farm, where he gets reacquainted with honest labor while nursing his wounds. Coleridge gets a kick out of his elderly host Virgil and Jade and starts having a midlife crisis and reconsidering his choices when their feisty granddaughter Reba disappears. Then he reverts to his old ways. First unselfishly, because the Walkers can’t turn to anyone else. But Coleridge is a natural and going what he does best again makes him feel more useful than shoveling any amount of horse shit.
Blood Standard’s best asset is Isaiah Coleridge himself. Career criminals are dime a dozen in literature and they’re too often derivative of the same kind-hearted outlaw archetype. There is some of that in Coleridge, but he’s much more complicated and, let’s say it better crafted character than most. He has personal stakes outside of the job, feuding with his father, who’s also a dangerous and shadowy type, over the death of his mother. He has a personality, you know? Fears and desires that make us bond with him and give a shit when his life is endangered. Coleridge might’ve not chosen this life if he hadn’t been ushered into it by an abusive father a shady uncle.
I know what you’re going to ask: is there any horror or supernatural whatsoever in this novel? The answer is no. But there are hints of Laird Barron’s horror legacy in the remote settings where reality often hangs by a thread. There’s a scene happening at somewhat of a pagan festival that really cool and out there for a crime novel. There are desolate cities and industrial wastelands where evil lurks in a more tragic and recognizable form, but evil lurks nonetheless. So, there isn’t any straightforward horror in Blood Standard, but there are influences of it and it really helped shape the novel’s personality. The worse offense most crime fiction can be accused of it being derivative and it’s not the case here.
Full disclosure: I had a love/hate relationship with the aura of romanticism around Isaiah Coleridge. Sometimes it made him really cool and larger than life * and others where his misplaced tough guy banter made him sound like a 12 year old who’s never got a whooping in his life. It’s an unfortunate side effect of Laird Barron alternating between old school pulp and more of a high brow literary approach throughout Blood Standard, but it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel. Truth is, I just love the man’s writing. It speaks to me in a powerful, visceral way. He understands how to write inner darkness better than most and while Blood Standard doesn’t nail that concept constantly, it gets transcendent when it does.
* I’m thinking here of a scene where he offers to fight four men on principle even if injured because they’ve been dicks to his friend. It’s probably my favorite scene of the novel and perhaps my favorite thing I’ve read all year.