The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


The Garrett Files

The Garrett Files

It seems unfair that Glen Cook should be the master of both the fantasy warfare genre (The Black Company) and the fantasy detective novel (The Garrett Files) but he undeniably is. Of the two genres, I suspect that the fantasy detective series is the most difficult. Not only does he have to have memorable characters whom the readers can love to cheer for (and against), exciting action scenes, magic that enhances the story without overwhelming it, and a believable fantasy back drop, he has to come up with a credible, multi-layered mystery. Cook does this in The Garrett Files by adopting the Nero Wolfe template with his character the Dead Man (four centuries in the grave but not ready to move on yet) playing Wolfe and his hero, Garrett filling the shoes of Archie Goodwin (drinking beer instead of milk, but otherwise pretty much the same). Add in a growing cast of memorable friends and you have the recipe for outstanding mysteries in a remarkably fresh setting.

Sweet Silver Blues

This is one of my favorite Glen Cook books. I’ve read it five or six times in the last three decades. It inspired my best friend to run an awesome D&D game that lasted eight years, and it leads to 13(?) mostly good sequels and countless copy cats. At its heart, this series becomes a fantasy take on the Nero Wolfe mysteries, but this first one is almost all about Garrett, an ex-Marine turned private investigator in the fantasy city of TunFaire. There’s a lot of action, but there’s also a very good mystery and a surprisingly strong chord played on the heartstrings by the end of the book. The characters are memorable and the world is ever more fascinating.

This first novel revolves around Garrett being hired to find the woman his old army buddy has left a fortune too. She’s in a realm called the Cantard which has been the focus of generational war between the wizards of his kingdom and their enemies. From the very beginning multiple groups of mysterious bad guys are showing too much (often violent) interest in Garrett’s mission and Cook plays these competing plotlines brilliantly to keep the adventure both fast-paced and always interesting. But the reason I keep coming back to this novel is the last five sentences of the second to last chapter—the true end of a brilliant novel. With five short sentences Cook transforms a triumphant ending into one which makes you want to weep.

In doing so he gives Garrett a depth worthy of a hundred sequels.

Bitter Gold Hearts

Bitter Gold Hearts sees Garrett reluctantly involved in the personal problems of the ruling class. Someone has dared to kidnap the only son of Stormwarden Raver Styx and Garrett is hired to make it look like he is helping to get the missing young man back again. He’s pulled in just deep enough to see that the Stormwarden’s family is a mess and to discover he likes her ward, a sweet half-faerie woman who is one of many scions of the family locked in misery and wanting to get out before mama Stormwarden returns from the war in the Cantard. When the young woman dies Garrett throws common sense to the wind and decides to bring a measure of justice to her killers no matter who in the Stormwarden’s family wants to get in his way.

This is a good one.

Cold Copper Tears

Religion comes to TunFaire in this third volume of the Garrett P.I. series. Garrett is a hardboiled detective in a fantasy city. His dream in life is to have nothing to do but drink beer and maybe enjoy the attention of a beautiful woman. After his exploits in the previous novel he has plenty of money and really doesn’t need to do any work, so he’s quite surprised when a street gang tries to kill him and even more shocked to learn shortly thereafter that someone has put a substantial price on his head. Despite his best efforts to the contrary, Garrett has to go to work to find out who’s trying to kill him.

That’s when religion enters the picture. A high-ranking religious figure tries to hire Garrett to find some missing relics. An ancient cult with some bizarre self-mutilation habits seems interested in doing the detective ill. A woman from his distant past is somehow involved in the mess and Garrett’s nobler instincts are pushing him to help her—if he could figure out what she really wants him to do. It’s a complicated situation which shows us a totally different side of the city of TunFaire then we saw in the first two books. The mystery is engaging and the eventual exposure of the villain is exciting and worthy of the buildup. It’s always a good sign when you still remember the bad guy thirty years after first reading the book.

Overall, I would describe this as a classic Garrett novel. The supporting cast is still small enough that they don’t slow the pace of the story as everyone has to make an appearance. The prose is tight and the pages flip quickly from first chapter to last. It’s not the best book to start the series on because the Dead Man plays a smaller role than usual, but if you’ve enjoyed any of the other Garrett books the odds are high you’ll enjoy this one too.

Old Tin Sorrows

Garrett’s old sergeant calls in a favor to make everyone’s favorite fantasy detective find out who’s trying to murder an already dying General Stanton. Stanton’s a lot like General Sternwood in The Big Sleep. He’s tough but likable in his final days of life, sitting next to a roaring fire because he doesn’t generate enough heat to keep his body warm on its own. He looks like he’s mere days from croaking on his own but is his poor health the result of a rare tropical disease caught in the service or an exotic poison? It doesn’t help that the General doesn’t like doctors and won’t cooperate in trying to save his life.

As to motive? There’s a will that gives half of the General’s estate to his daughter and splits the remaining half between several long term retainers most of whom served under the General in the war. Suspicions that someone is trying to knock the General off are strengthened by the growing number of his retainers that have met an unexpected end—shrinking the pool of inheritors and growing everyone’s share of the estate. There’s also a woman (isn’t there always a woman in a Garrett novel) who is sneaking around the General’s home and nobody but Garrett admits to being able to see her. The only thing really going for Garrett as he tries to investigate this tight-mouthed group of suspects is that the pool of potential killers is diminishing so rapidly.

Old Tin Sorrows shows us a different aspect of Garrett. He’s ten miles outside of the city for almost the entire book so he has to depend on his own wits and a little bit of help from his friend, Morley Dotes, to solve the crime. The Dead Man is simply not available to make connections or suggest courses of action. As the story progresses and the tension grows tauter it begins to look like Garrett isn’t up to the task.

It’s always hard to evaluate the mystery of a novel you’ve read a couple of times before but I think Cook does a pretty good job with this one. At times Garrett seems to be a little slow, but if we recall he’s getting no sleep and is under a lot of strain, I’m not sure it’s fair to hold that against him. There are a couple of nice surprises toward the end and the portrait of Eleanor becomes a fixture in later novels, so this is not a book that is forgotten as the series progresses.

Dread Brass Shadows (Garrett Files #5) by Glen Cook

Garrett is a little slow in the fifth volume of the Garrett Files. Admittedly, there is a lot of confusing and even traumatic things happening around him, but he misses a crucial fact early in the novel that would have potentially shortened the book by about two hundred pages. Not that that’s a bad thing—those two hundred pages are fun, packed with mayhem and mischief.

The novel opens with Garrett’s on-again off-again girlfriend, Tinnie Tate, getting stabbed as she walks up the road to see him. There’s no reason that anyone can figure for the attack until a woman comes to Garrett seeking his help to find a missing book. It turns out that just about everyone wants to get their hands on this book, a magical volume whose pages are made of brass. Most of the people searching for the book believe that Garrett has it and they spend a lot of time trying to coerce answers out of him, sneak into his house, or just straight up kill him. Then mob boss Codo Contague gets involved and the stakes are substantially raised with all sides still trying to recruit Garrett or wipe him out of the fight.

Most of the usual support cast is absent for most of the novel. The reason is a little weak, but it gives Cook an excuse for his big blow out ending—the conclusion of which sets the stage for more problems in future novels.

The best thing about this book is the fate of the book—which contains one of those images Cook paints so well that has hung in my mind for the thirty or so years since I first read it.

Red Iron Nights (Garrett Files #6) by Glen Cook

This Garrett Files novel has the most memorable villain in the series. He’s an extreme sexual deviant who happens to vomit green venomous butterflies when he gets worked up. Oh, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you kill him and burn the body, he still manages to stalk the night and kill another woman. The novel is a little slow to get started, but once it catches its stride its nonstop excitement until Garrett and the Dead Man bring their villain to justice.

But it wouldn’t be a Cook series if that was all that was happening. The war in the Cantard is coming to an end and the city watch is starting to imagine it could be a lot more than an ineffective group of guys who make most of their living taking bribes from criminals. Things are starting to happen in Garrett’s hometown and it’s by no means clear it will be good for him.

I’ve enjoyed this series for well over twenty years and it’s a delight to reread it.

Deadly Quicksilver Lies (Garrett Files #7) by Glen Cook

Even though I am rereading the Garrett Files series, I was not anxious to pick up this volume. Memory told me that it was of significantly lower quality than the first six books and it’s just hard to get excited about rereading a book like that. Unfortunately, my memory was correct. I started and stopped the novel roughly ten times before biting the bullet and reading it through to the end. The problem is one of pacing. This book with “quicksilver” in the title reads like frozen molasses trying to find enough heat to drip off a table. It’s not that any particular part of the plot, or any particular onion layer of the mystery isn’t good, it’s that it happens so incredibly slowly.

It's a shame, because there are actually a lot of really good elements to this story. Garrett gets slammed into an insane asylum. The Deadman is asleep for the whole novel leaving Garrett to figure things out totally on his own. The primary villain is a fascinating figure with big surprises. There’s actually some very good action scenes as well. But these elements are stretched so far out that it just doesn’t save the story. Maybe if Cook had cut one hundred pages it would have been all right, but this one, I sadly report, just didn’t work for me.