Wednesday, 19 January 2011

‘Sweet Silver Blues’ – Glen Cook (Roc)

It’s a sort of ‘Unofficial New Year’s Resolution’ of mine to read more books by Glen Cook in 2011 and there are plenty to choose from! Cook certainly falls into my list of authors who are far more prolific than you would at first believe as there is so much more to his body of work than the ‘Black Company’ books he is most famous for. Cook’s rounding off of his ‘Instrumentalities of the Night’ trilogy is his latest work but I thought it might be more interesting (to begin with) to go back a few years and see how certain series of his began. To that end you will see a review of ‘An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat’ (a collection of short stories from the ‘Dread Empire’ setting) sometime fairly soon but I’ll be looking at ‘Garrett P.I.’ books in the meantime.
I’ve actually read a couple of these books already but the ‘Garrett’ books are pretty hard to come by over here and this meant reading them out of order. This meant that I probably didn’t get the most out of ‘Whispering Nickel Idols’ when I read it; ‘Gilded Latten Bones’ worked a lot better but still left me aware of all the gaps that needed filling in.  Luckily enough Christmas saw me able to empty the shelves at Forbidden Planet (of everything ‘Garrett’ related, they actually had the books in for a change!) and I’m now in the position of finally being able to do what I should have done to begin with, start at the very beginning...

Garrett is back from the war in the Cantard and looking to make ends meet by hiring himself out as a private investigator in the city of Tunfaire, home to elves, gnomes and wizards. A lot of his friends died in the war and it turns out that one of them (Denny) has made Garrett executor to his will. Denny’s family want to keep the money instead of see it going to a woman that they barely know; Garrett’s job is to track down this woman and see if she wants her share of a fortune in silver. Where is our mystery woman hiding? In the very place where Garrett swore he would never return, the Cantard...
Garrett is the sort of guy who can’t help but do a dead friend a favour though, especially when certain family members make it more than clear that all the money should be headed their way. The Cantard beckons and Garrett makes sure that he has enough muscle along for the trip; when vampires are involved though, will it be enough?

I can’t remember exactly where it was that I read it but I remember reading that one of the themes of ‘noir fiction’ is that the private eye often has no handle on the case at all; events play out and the case is eventually solved almost in spite of the investigator’s attempts to get to the bottom of things. This is very much the case in ‘Sweet Silver Blues’ where what initially looks like a simple ‘find a missing person case’ becomes a whole lot more. As more and more elements come into play, the case fleshes itself out and becomes more intriguing as the book progresses. At the same time there is a constant feeling of uncertainty (both in the sub-plots being discussed and the fact that anything could happen in the story to come) that kept me turning pages in order to find out what happened next.

Garrett bucks the trend a little bit by having his finger on the pulse a lot more than other private eyes (although he does generally conform to the noir detective norm, hard boiled with heart) ; here is a guy who is able to take everything on board and keep everything in the air all at once. This helps Garrett reach his conclusions a lot quicker than the average private eye and certainly a lot quicker than I was able to. I’ll admit that I had trouble catching those moments when either a clue provided that vital inspiration or inspiration simply fell from the sky and hit our hero. For a mystery that generally does a very good job of growing organically it did feel that the leaps of logic were bolted on rather than simply allowed to flow naturally. Part of this is down to Cook’s rather blunt prose style where Garrett’s getting the job done is far more important than telling the reader just exactly how it was done. If you’ve read any of Cook’s work then you’ll know that this is normal for him so you can understand why he’s left out the more intuitive details here. I’ll also admit that I’m not so hot at following the ins and outs of detective stories so this could well all be down to me. A re-read will settle things, one way or the other, and ‘Sweet Silver Blues’ is definitely a book that I would pick up again.

Cook’s blunt ‘tell it how it is’ style may prove to be an obstacle to the smooth running of ‘Sweet Silver Blues’ but, at the same time, proves to be a very effective tool not only in setting the scene but also in terms of keeping things moving at a decent rate of knots. With no diversions into flowery prose, the plot is able to maintain a brisk pace throughout which adds to the sense of urgency that I mentioned earlier. There’s no hanging about here and you’re left in no doubt as to exactly why this is.
We also get a real feel for a world that is definitely vibrant albeit for reasons that are likely to get a man killed if he’s not very careful. The blunt prose used here sits very neatly in descriptions of a criminal underworld that is very blunt in its dealings (literally). The prose style suggests that there is no room in this world for anything more flowery and there’s a real gritty feeling to proceedings as a result.

‘Sweet Silver Blues’ is a tough nut to crack but rewards a readers persistence with a tale that makes for an engaging and compelling read in equal measure. This is the ‘Garrett’ book that I should have picked up first and I’m looking forward to reading more in this vein.

Nine out of Ten


Salt-Man Z said...

I found the first Garrett book somewhat hard to follow, too. Subsequent books move a bit more smoothly.

noothergods said...

I have recently been reading The Black Company series and so far I love Cook's style. That being said I'm not sure I'm ready for a P.I. in the same style. Eventually though, eventually.

Graeme Flory said...

I need to get a better idea of the reading order and then I'm on my way with the series. Well, the books that I've been able to pick up anyway... :o)

John Johnson said...

The all-knowing Wikipedia has the order of the P.I. books

Sweet Silver Blues (1987)
Bitter Gold Hearts (1988)
Cold Copper Tears (1988)
Old Tin Sorrows (1989)
Dread Brass Shadows (1990)
Red Iron Nights (1991)
Deadly Quicksilver Lies (1994)
Petty Pewter Gods (1995)
Faded Steel Heat (1999)
Angry Lead Skies (2002)
Whispering Nickel Idols (2005)
Cruel Zinc Melodies (2008)
Gilded Latten Bones (2010)

I found that I enjoyed the P.I. books more than the Black Company, but I have a weakness for mystery stories. As far as ordering them goes--if you local bookstore doesn't have them in stock I recommend (you'll have to pay the extra shipping), or which appears to have them all.