Monday, July 20, 2009

The Sword-Edged Blonde

There have long been attempts to meld the noir genre with speculative fiction. One of the most notable examples is Larry Niven's Gil Hamilton series, and a great deal of cyberpunk fiction fit very well into the noir genre. More recently, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk series placed a detective of sorts into a future Arab world. Even Andre Norton's Witch World starts off with a noir setting and tone. Most often, the subgenre chosen for these attempts is some form of science fiction, because those technological future societies seem to be the most conducive to the kind of writing that one associates with noir. Or perhaps because the golden age of science fiction was very close to the golden age of detective pulp fiction and the more literary noir stories that arose from them.

There have also been some attempts at melding noir with fantasy. The books that leap to mind most quickly are Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series, concerned as they are with a member of the criminal underworld and his place in the complex culture he lives in. The books are narrated in strong first-person point of view with Taltos as the narrator, typical of the noir style. More recent books along similar lines include Scott Lynch's Locke Lamora books. Both series have a lot of fun with the noir genre but are firmly rooted in the fantasy tradition.

Even the title of Alex Bledsoe's novel, The Sword-Edge Blonde: An Eddie LaCrosse Novel, is evocative of all the stereotypes of noir. And in a lot of ways, Bledsoe delivers on this promise, touching the various tropes most often associated with the genre. Our protagonist, Eddie LaCrosse, has an office above a bar with a separate waiting room. And into it walks the emissary of a member of the upper class, since no one of any repute would dare be seen in such horrible straits. Eddie is hired to find the missing daughter of King Felix and return her home as surreptitiously as possible and with no questions asked. Eddie accepts the job and goes down to the bar, where he cracks wise with the serving girl—Callie, a good kid who is too dull or too happy to understand how much she entices the men around her—and Angelina, the bar owner with a heart of gold and a ready bottle to poor. And all of this within the first chapter! Bledsoe's style is spare and fast-moving, and while the prose is enjoyable, he ticks off the checkmarks on his List of Noir Cliches in good fashion, causing the reader to assume familiarity with what is about to happen because of the expected style while introducing the reader to a world he is only just discovering.

Of course, as Eddie works on this assignment, we meet some of his less-than-reputable friends and he discovers someone on his trail. And as the missing daughter is found and the job that sets the rest of the events into motion, Eddie finds himself face to face with unwanted adversaries and assisted by an unexpected ally. And all of this acts as prelude to the real story in Sword-Edged Blonde, the one that begins to show us who Eddie really is and shed light on his troubled history. A healthy portion of the rest of the book is Eddie working on his new case, a baffling locked room mystery, while flashing back to Eddie's earlier life and what led him to the circumstances where he is a sword jockey, a knife for hire. Bledsoe nails all the details of the genre.

It is the novel's setting that twists expectations: it turns out that gods walk among the inhabitants of this world, and Eddie has had some very personal dealings with the one involved in the mystery he is asked to solve. Bledsoe just mixes those gods into his story as if they were just more characters, giving them very real foibles and weaknesses. And the further forward Eddie moves in solving his mystery, the more he has to deal with the ghosts of his own past, ghosts associated with gods and goddesses, as it becomes clear that solving one issue involves solving the other.

Like other great noir characters, Eddie is by no means perfect. He's a good fighter, either with his hands or with his sword (a lovely twist is that Eddie's swords all have brand names, like his Fireblade Warrior), but he also knows when he is overwhelmed by superior numbers or skill. Eddie wakes up from being beaten a couple of times and has to start over or plan his escape, much like Mike Hammer. He is also pretty good with the smart alecky quote, and he seems to know just about everybody worth knowing…and they all owe him favors.

If there is a weakness to Sword-Edged Blonde, it's that perhaps too much is revealed. We are told the major conflict in Eddie's life and he resolves it completely in the course of the novel. I felt like it happened far too easily, and would have appreciated letting that mystery dangle into subsequent books or at least letting its resolution be delayed for a while. But in the face of it, that's really a minor complaint, as I found I just couldn't put the book down (I finished it in a day). Eddie is a likable cur with a heart of gold, even if he can't ever let his friends see it. The noir elements are dead on, and the fantastic elements just enough to keep the story from becoming totally predictable. It's an enjoyable read, but not one that takes tons of concentration or explanation. I find that I am looking forward to the sequel, Burn Me Deadly, to see if Bledsoe can build off this delightful start. And even if he doesn't grow, maintaining the same level of storytelling, those books will be just fine for a light, quick read.


  1. This has nothing to do with the content of your post, but I thought of you this Sunday when reading the following article in the NY Times Sunday magazine:

    It makes me want to pick up some of his books, even though I haven't read science fiction/fantasy in years. What do you think of him?

  2. I was given this article earlier this week by a friend. I was prepared to be disappointed in it because the author sets up his premise as "does writing about dragons and spaceships deserve critical merit?" The author then briefly questions the assumptions behind that subject before getting on to the meat of the article, heaping praise on Jack Vance.

    With fans like Chabon and Gaiman, it seems the height of poor taste to not like Vance, but I have tried to read three of his books and could not get more than twenty to thirty pages into them. Some people accuse me of being a fan of flowery language and frilly artistry in writing, and I admit I lean towards that sort of thing. And that would certainly seem to indicate that I would like Vance.

    But I find that I like that sort of construction in writing when it serves the plot or theme of the work. Vance's writing seems to be art for its own sake and thus nearly impenetrable--I can't get to the plot for all the flowery language. I talked to one of my good friends whose criticism I trust; he admits to having similar troubles, so it is not just me.

    Mrs. Speculator wants me to get in touch with Chabon and Gaiman to ask them why they like Vance so much and ask them for recommendations. As I am in San Diego at the moment, and I know Gaiman is here and suspect Chbon might be, maybe if I run into them, I'll ask.

    But to your question--not a big fan, no. Willing to try something else of his with such thoughtful people speaking out on his behalf. And as always, your mileage may vary. His is just not the first name I would think of for someone thinking of jumping back into the genre (Kay, Stephenson, Mieville...that's a diffferent story. Maybe even Bledsoe, the book this review is about, if detective fiction is something you enjoy).