Sweet Silver Blues
By Glen Cook
Glen Cook was born New York City, year of our Lord 1944. He started writing in grade school (primary school for my English readers) and by the time he hit high school he was donating articles to the school paper. He had to step away from writing for a bit as he served a hitch in the navy (he spent part of that time interestingly enough with a Marine Force Recon Unit, but rotated out before they shipped off to Vietnam) and worked his way through college. However when he picked up a job at a GM plant that really didn't require to much mental effort from him, he picked it right back up. His first book The Black Company was published in 1984, a military fantasy work that would be listed as an influence by Steven Eriksen (writer of the Malazan series) and George RR Martin (if you need me to tell you, then please email me, you're gonna need a guided tour of the fantasy genre). Mr. Cook made a splash by injecting a dose of gritty, raw realism into his fantasy. His characters acted and sounded like real people who got hungry, tired, and every now and again just really needed to take a piss. He followed up the Black Company with an experiment, which is remarkable in and of itself as lot of fantasy publishing companies weren't terribly keen on experimenting with the genre. Of course I suppose when you open with something like the Black Company, they tend to let you have a little bit more rope. Additionally, fantasy itself was still experiencing a lot of changes with works from people like Michael Moorcock being as influential on new writers as Tolkien in a lot of ways. This specific experiment however, was the combining of noir detective stories with a fantasy setting. A combination that has grown popular in later years especially in the realm of urban fantasy (those are fantasy stories set in the modern “real world” for the most part). Sweet Silver Blues however sets itself in a full blown fantasy world but brings noir style characters and outlooks to the setting.
Garrett is a lot of things, a ladies man, a war veteran, habitable over drinker and private investigator. Setting up shop in the city of TunFaire, Garrett is who you turn to when you want a mystery solved quietly. As long as you're willing to pay for it. Loosely (very loosely) based on Archie Goodwin from the Nero Wolfe series (there's another character who is based on Nero Wolfe, but as I said loosely), Archie in that book series worked for Nero Wolfe, an investigator who hated leaving home, so he had Archie do all the clue gather and what not. Garrett differs in that he's self employed and operates a lot more independently. Garrett in this book comes off as a cynic who would really like to be an idealist but has simply dealt with to many people for that to be possible. That said there's a refreshing lack of condemnation for most characters from Garrett. Oh there are some utter assholes that Garrett calls out but you don't see a lot of Garrett getting on his high horse. He knows his faults and is mostly tired of people pretending that they don't have theirs, but is also willing to give them all the credit they've earned. It's a very fair way to look at things. Of course Garrett doesn't let any of this get in the way of doing his job, he is after all here to get paid.
Garrett has never figured how to live without beer and food but he has figured out if you're good at something, don't do it for free. TunFaire is the capital city of the kingdom of Karenta, which is ruled by a band of sorcerers who are at war with another band of sorcerers who rule the next country over (Venageta). They're fighting over a region of the world known as the Cantard, a blasted, wild wasteland which happens to hold most of the world's known silver reserve. Along with hostile Centaur tribes, vampire nests, and packs of carnivorous unicorns with their own trained hunting dogs (that's right unicorns who want to kill and eat you and have trained dogs to hunt you). This is worth waging a long unending war because magic is fueled by precious metals like silver. So, I suppose you could say Karenta and Venageta are having their own little oil war. Thankfully Mr. Cook doesn't beat us over the head with this but the war the constant drain of resources and the strain it puts on society are constantly in the background and show up in the very fabric of Karenta. For example all male citizens are required to serve 5 years in the military, be it the army, navy or the marines. Garrett being brave, strong, loyal and perhaps not all that bright at the time, went for the Marine Corps. His buddy Denny Tate, a dwarf with a touch of elvish blood, served in the cavalry. Denny managed to pick up some plunder when his regiment hit an enemy pay caravan, he then without anyone knowing except an old girlfriend and his army buddies turned that bit of plunder into a rather large fortune. Which he never really got to enjoy as he fell off his horse, split his skull open and died (odd way to go for a cavalry man if you ask me but nobody did).
Garrett isn't hired to investigate Denny's death as everyone is pretty sure it was an accident, given that it happened in broad daylight with a lot of witness. No, Garrett isn't that lucky. Instead Garrett has been hired to hunt down the woman that Denny left his fortune to, the said ex-girlfriend. The said, married, ex-girlfriend (as she got married after Denny left). The said, married, ex-girlfriend that Garrett had a fling with when he was stationed in her hometown before she met Denny. The married ex-girlfriend who has disappeared into the Cantard. Which means Garrett has to whistle up a crew, travel to the girl's old hometown and try and hunt her down in a warzone infested with enemy soldiers, screaming monsters, angry natives, and vampires. Additionally, Denny's old army buddies would rather he pass on the job, see they figure if they just grab some of Denny's letters and keep writing, they can fool the lady into keeping this money making plan going for at least another year or two and they're willing to get violent to do it. On top of that, he's got to deal with the fact that Denny's little sister Rose, is willing to move heaven and earth to keep him from doing it. Because if he fails, she gets all that money. It's a sucker's job, the kind most people would run screaming from and most of the rest won't come back from but Garrett's gonna do it anyways. Not for the amazingly high fee (although that's part of it). Not just because Denny was a friend and a fellow vet (although that's one of the reasons). Not just because he wants to help an old girlfriend (although that's on the list as well) but for himself because he wants to set this to rest and not have it gnawing at the back of his head. Garrett might not be his own worst enemy but he should certainly list himself on a top ten arch foes list.
Garrett's not alone in this job however, with him he's bringing a half dark elf named Morley Dotes, a pair of half giant, half trolls with their little brother; and to top that off, he's getting advice from a dead guy. Let's take a look at this crew. Morley has a number of unattractive traits if we're gonna be honest: he's quick to kill requiring Garrett to hold him back a few times, and he really enjoys sleeping with other people's wives and is one of those vegetarians who heckles you about enjoying a good ham sandwich (look living to 125 on cattail roots just doesn't sound worth it). Now before anyone gets excited, there's nothing wrong with you being a vegetarian, there is something wrong with you demanding I be one. I won't pick on you for your diet and you won't pick on me for mine alright? All of that said, Morley is very dependable in this book, willing to follow Garrett into the worst of places on the barest of plans. I’ve got to admire that level of friendship because frankly Morley could have cut and run pretty much at any point and likely made it somewhere where he could live comfortably. Plus his back and forth with Garrett is pretty damn funny. I honestly like their relationship, Garrett's a bit of a questionable guy himself but having Morley around helps highlight his good points and makes his flaws more comedy than tragic. Plus having a friendship as one of the core relationships of your book keeps the tone from getting to dark. That doesn't mean that Morley doesn't have his own goals mind you, just that his friendship can be counted on here. The Grolls don't have much character here beyond hit things and laugh but they're dumb muscle. The dead guy? Well he ain't human, literally. He's a member of the Loghyr race, who hang around after they die. The Dead Guy is a genius however and provides Garrett with clues and ideas on how to operate out there in the big bad world, which makes a bit of a call out to Nero Wolfe himself. He doesn't play a major part in this book honestly beyond the beginning but like I said does provide some valuable information for Garrett.
Sweet Silver Blues is an interesting look back into the past, while I'm not sure if it's the first book to mix noir story lines and characters with fantasy elements, it's certainly a very early example of it. The book is gritty, with characters who are flawed but not hateful or disguising. The humanity of the characters is used to give them clay feet but doesn't drag them through the muck either. Which is frankly an improvement on several modern examples, as there are those who believe that characters with any unalloyed good points or virtues must be hunted down and erased. If you like a story where the characters feel real but there are still plenty of laughs and awesome moments or if you like a mystery story that doesn't revolve around a murder you'll like this. Mr. Cook builds a settings that has questions of racism, corruption and the question of when it is right to go to war and lets you examine those issues by looking at the impact on the characters in the story. Which is a great and subtle way to do it. I had fun with this story and I think you will to. That said the story does end up feeling a bit rushed towards to the end and I wish the journey back had been given a bit more attention. I'm giving Sweet Silver Blues by Mr. Glen Cook a B+.
Next week we take a look at KG Splanger's book Greek Key. Keep reading.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.