Monday, February 27, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Sweet Silver Blues

Glen Cook's name has appeared in this feature once before, in discussing his 1984 novel, The Black Company, which Gary Gygax cited as an example of a book that, in his opinion, mapped well onto his vision of Dungeons & Dragons. Though The Black Company proved a success and spawned many sequels, it's not Cook's only fantasy series. In 1987, he kicked off a different set of novels with Sweet Silver Blues. "Different" may be an understatement, since, except for the fact that Sweet Silver Blues and its sequels also use first person narration, they don't have a lot in common with the tales of the Black Company. In terms of both style and content, Sweet Silver Blues almost feels as if it were written by another author, though some of that might be because Cook is self-consciously imitating the tone and diction of a genre other than mainstream fantasy. Sweet Silver Blues begins thusly:
Bam! Bam! Bam!
It sounded like someone was knocking with a sledgehammer. I rolled over and cracked a bloodshot eye. I couldn’t see a figure through the window, but that wasn’t surprising. I could barely make out the lettering on the grimy glass:

Confidential Agent

I had blown my wad buying the glass and wound up being my own painter.
The window was as dirty as last week’s dishwater, but not filthy enough to block out the piercing morning light. The damned sun wasn’t up yet! And I’d been out till the second watch barhopping while I followed a guy who might lead me to a guy who might know where I could find a guy. All this led to was a pounding headache.
“Go away!” I growled. “Not available.”
Bam! Bam! Bam!
“Go to hell away!” I yelled. It left my head feeling like an egg that had just bounced off the edge of a frying pan. I wondered if I ought to feel the back to see if the yolk was leaking, but it seemed like too much work. I’d just go ahead and die.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
I have a little trouble with my temper, especially when I have a hangover. I was halfway to the door with two feet of lead-weighted truncheon before sense penetrated the scrambled yolk.
When they are that insistent, it’s somebody from up the hill with a summons to do work too sticky to lay on their own boys. Or it’s somebody from down the hill with the word that you’re stepping on the wrong toes.
In the latter case the truncheon might be useful.
I yanked the door open.
For a moment I didn’t see the woman. She barely came up to my chest. I eyeballed the three guys behind her. They were lugging enough steel to outfit their own army, but I wouldn’t have been shy about wading in. Two of them were about fifteen years old and the other was about a hundred and five.
“We’re invaded by dwarfs,” I moaned. None of them was taller than the woman.
As you can see, Sweet Silver Blues has as much in common with hard-boiled detective fiction as it does with fantasy, so much so that its protagonist, Garrett (he has no other name) is in fact a private investigator after the fashion of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. The world that Garrett inhabits is still (largely) recognizable to fans of fantasy -- there are dwarfs and centaurs and and vampires -- but their presentation is nothing like Tolkien or Howard or any of their imitators. Instead, Garrett's world is basically 1930s but with magic taking the place of technology and fantasy beings and nations in place of more familiar ones. Like the real 1930s, it's also a world that's still recovering from a disastrous war in its recent past, one whose outcome still has repercussions for the present day.

One of those repercussions hits Garrett personally. The dwarfs who show up on his doorstep want to hire him to investigate the death of one of their kinsmen, Denny Tate. Denny, it turns out, served in the war alongside Garrett, so discovering the real cause of his death isn't just another job for the private eye. I say "real cause," because, though Denny supposedly died an accidental death, his family thinks otherwise -- especially once they discover the terms of his will. Denny, who was a shoemaker by trade, seemed to have a secret fortune in gold and silver and, rather than leave it to his family, as one might expect, he left it all to a woman none of the dwarfs had ever heard of and whom they presumed to have been an old flame. Of course, Garrett's heard of this woman, because she'd once been his girlfriend as well, which only makes the investigator even more suspicious about this case.

Like The Black Company, I knew of the existence of Sweet Silver Blues for years before I actually read it. For some reason, I just never came across a copy and so I missed out on the chance to enjoy what is a fun little tale cleverly told. As I said above, it's a lot more lighthearted than The Black Company, though it's still very cynical and world-weary at times, as befits its inspirations. I'm not completely convinced that its transposition of hard-boiled literary tropes to a fantasy setting works, though I'm also not sure that I care. Cook is a good writer, with a knack for creating interesting and compelling characters. The central story of Sweet Silver Blues is perhaps a little clichéd, particularly if you're familiar with the sources he'd drawing upon, but I don't think that necessarily weakens the novel or one's pleasure in reading it. This is one of those lean-back-and-enjoy-the-ride books and makes a nice change of pace from the pretension and self-seriousness that characterizes too much of modern fantasy.


  1. I agree that the Garrett series is fun and very different.

    The earliest entries have been reprinted in the past few years, and one omnibus was just released, too. See "Garrett Takes the Case".

  2. I can second that opinion. The novels are a good change of pace, and the setting always makes me itchy to try to implement it in a game.

    As the series progresses, it is interesting to see how Cook changes and matures Garrett and his buddies.

  3. looks like I will be picking this up, I loved Cook's Black Company, but his Sci Fi series has had a less appeal for me.


  4. "Garrett (he has no other name) is in fact a private investigator after the fashion of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade."

    Nero Wolfe -- Garret is Archie, the Loghyr is Nero. It took me four books and re-reading them a few times to realize the connection.

  5. "Sweet Silver Blues" is definitely a fun read. The series really hits it stride with the next book, "Bitter Gold Hearts" before tapering off somewhat around the sixth book, "Red Iron Nights".
    Even the later books, though, are worth reading. Garrett's development and the way the world around him evolves is fairly complex and never less than interesting.

  6. I've never heard of these before. I suspect because The Black Company tends eclipse the rest of Cook's work.

  7. I've read a couple of this series, but I don't like them much. I don't think Cook managed to pull off the blend of fantasy and hard-boiled fiction effectively - they're not mystic enough for a fantasy and not anchored enough for a hard-boiled. Though I remember being amused at a lot of the references.

  8. Going back and reading the review of The Black Company I find myself more in agreement with that critique of Cook than this one. The Garret Files is a series I really wanted to like. Raymond Chandler is it for me as far as pulp writers go--regardless of genre. He's all that and a bag of chips in my book, so I was excited to see, back in the mid-late 80s, this series which seemed to combine my two favorite genres--fantasy and hardboiled mystery fiction.

    And the first 100 pages or so of Sweet Silver Blues was great. Cook did a good job with the characters and prose, a good job of mimicking Chandler's style. Unfortunately, the first 100 pages were only about a third of the novel, and Cook's flat style (as mentioned in the Black Company review) reared its ugly head. It was a chore to get through the rest of the book, and I've never bothered reading the 2nd and 3rd novels in the collection I bought from the Sci-Fi book club. A pity.

  9. No one else has mentioned Eberron yet, so I will. Eberron. There. Discuss.

  10. Despite loving hard-boiled crime fiction and fantasy, I've never developed a taste for stories that knowingly combine them. I don't know why. Maybe it's because when fantasy authors try to write in that old hard-boiled style, it comes off as too affected in comparison to the original stories, too cute.

  11. I actually prefer this series to that of The Black Company and his other more traditional sword and sorcery works. As with why I like or dislike many SF/F books, this is actually because I enjoyed the world he created.

    I particularly liked the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Admittedly this is because most of the humans had been drafted to fight in the Cantard, but I felt it was something that was mostly lacking in D&D games (or at best limited to the measly half dozen player character races).

    And speaking of the Cantard, I eagerly awaited hearing the latest of what Glory Mooncalled was up to in each book.

    So, while it doesn't quite capture the noir detective genre that it parodies, it has created something that is distinctly different from the standard run of fantasy.

    And it helps that Garrett isn't really anything special. Sure he was an ex-Marine, but he didn't have magical powers or incredibly fighting ability that leaves bodies strewn in his wake. His main advantage is the friends and contacts that he has, although he is also quite good at taking a beating. He's lazy as long as he has a ready supply of beer, and afraid of horses. In other words, he is a very human human.

  12. The Hawk and Fisher series by Simon R. Green is another interesting foray into combining detective fiction with sword & sorcery, although with a very different voice.

    Not great literature, butr reasonably fun for a time. And also available as two omnibuses, which makes them easy to pick up and find.

  13. I believe the references to Raymond Chandler are just ever-so-slightly off the mark. As Rob Crawford noted the more direct inspiration appears to be Rex Stout. Also, and I think equally as on-the-nose, given the titles, John MacDonald's "Travis McGee" novels ("The Deep Blue Good-by", "A Deadly Shade of Gold", "The Turquoise Lament", etc.) Oh, and the Tates are not dwarfs. That was just Garrett being snarky about their height.

  14. Oh, and the Tates are not dwarfs. That was just Garrett being snarky about their height.

    This is true. They are, however, quite short and they themselves claim to have elvish blood, implying that they're not fully human, but, you're correct: they're not "dwarves" in the Tolkien/D&D sense of the term.

  15. I'm with Unknown - although I think Garrett draws from a lot of hard boiled lit, I think he's based on Travis McGee, from the John D. MacDonald series (thus the naming convention for the books).

    I'm not a huge fan of the series. I think they're ok fantasies and mediocre noirs, and sort of a weird combination of the two. I'd like to see a proper pulp fantasy detective that doesn't try to be tongue in cheek or humorous. (Not the modern po-faced urban fantasies, either, but something like the Cook or the Simon Green stuff, but is confident enough to be a proper detective or noir novel in a fantasy setting, rather than a hesitant comedy.)

    1. You might be interested in some Chinese fantasy stories like Detective Dee. A recent Hong Kong movie of that was released that is actually pretty good. It's kind of a genre, though I don't know how much is available in English.

  16. Old Tin Sorrows has an ugly cover (at least my edition), and is maybe the darker book in the series.
    But it's really good (maybe because it's dark). I think it's first Garret P.I. book I read, and it's the main reason why I like them.

  17. I think that most of the covers I've seen are a tad misleading in that they depict Garrett as being dressed as in 1930s clothing.

    I liked the reason given in the series for the recent war and the depiction of sorcerors :)

  18. Not the modern po-faced urban fantasies, either, but something like the Cook or the Simon Green stuff, but is confident enough to be a proper detective or noir novel in a fantasy setting, rather than a hesitant comedy.

    Try Low Town by Daniel Polansky. Or the Alex Bledsoe series.

  19. I like the one where Garret has sex with a ghost.

  20. This is one of my favorite series. I particularly like the way he handles the religious sections of town (see Petty Pewter Gods)

  21. There's a lot of good source material to grab for gaming. If you're going to run a low magic campaign, you could do a lot worse than to make it city-based and investigation heavy, and this series will give you ideas.

    One of my favorites also.