Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An ex-Mafia bruiser-turned-private-detective is hired by a senator’s bodyguard to investigate the apparent suicide of his nephew. Along the way, the PI encounters a backwater town full of hillbillies, a blood-worshiping cult and a particle collider housed deep underground in a mysterious research facility. Not ringing any bells? Good! Then all of the twists and turns in Laird Barron’s intricate and deftly written Worse Angels will be as surprising to you as they were to me.
Isaiah Coleridge has taken his licks over the years. A former member of the mob known more for hurting people than helping them, Coleridge is haunted both mentally and physically by his violent past. Now he’s a private detective, working to build a more normal life for his family. But that old saying, “Just when I thought I was out . . . ” always seems to come true for Mafia types. True to form, Coleridge’s reputation for his brains as well as his brawn lead him to take on a cold case investigation. The client: Badja Adeyemi, ex-major-domo to a powerful US senator. The job: Find out if the suicide of Sean Pruitt, Adeyemi’s nephew, was in fact a murder. When Isaiah discovers that something more wicked might be happening in the town of Horseheads in upstate New York, a twisty and exciting mystery unfolds.
For all the originality of the detail, the broad strokes might come across as familiar: A brilliant tough-guy with a checkered past investigates a death in a dreary town and starts to uncover some signs that suggest something way out of the norm. But Barron’s deft handling of mood and tension makes this feel fresh too. He takes us into and out of the action with an almost cinematic precision, giving us just enough to understand the stakes, while leaving enough mystery to keep us guessing. It should also be said that Barron’s command of language is stunning. Dialogue rattles off lightning-quick and the banter between Coleridge and his team is often hilarious. When we find ourselves inside of Coleridge’s mind, the tone shifts beautifully to reflect the psychedelic canvas of inner thought.
There’s impressive world building here as well. The details that Barron chooses to populate the story with at first feel disparate and random, but his vivid choices turn out to pay dividends as the story goes on. For example, Coleridge’s knowledge of ancient mythology bleeds over into the narrative and even starts to influence the reader’s perspective on the plot. Though certain details simply created clutter, overall the risks Barron took in the name of atmosphere and payoff feel worthwhile.
I’m most frequently conscripted to review the sci-fi and fantasy genres, where entire universes are invented on the page, and there’s something about Worse Angels that feels similar to my usual gig. Feeling like a character is strong enough to guide you through the unknown is as relevant here as it is in more fantastic settings. The great thing is that this is, in fact, Coleridge’s third outing, with more to come. I may have to take a detour from whatever book I’m reading when his next caper hits the shelves.