Chuck Wendig and I share a history of sorts: we both grew up in the same picturesque, rural (at least back then) paradise known as Buckingham Mountain, Pennsylvania. It’s known for its history, ghost legends, a hermit, and a setting for one of the most grisly unsolved murders in the history of Bucks County. The Wendigs are one of the original farm families in the area. My parents were good friends with the farmer and his wife and their children who lived in houses spreading across the mountain where they raised their own kids–Chuck being one of them. He is younger than me (I may have babysat him once or twice) and somewhere in the annals of my family’s super 8 home movies, his parents and mine are partying in a groovy 70’s rec room and vacationing together with a bunch of other neighbors at Long Beach Island, NJ (one of the settings in the book).
But I digress. To the book.
Blackbirds is a fast-paced, action-packed, noir thriller told in the same rapid-firing, expletive-laden, aggressive voice I’ve enjoyed since discovering his popular blog a while ago (truth be told, I came in late in the game). The story is about a young woman, Miriam Black, whose special gift is being able to psychically “see” how people will die simply by touching their skin. Cursed by this gift, “damaged goods” bad girl Miriam had given up on trying to help people after a few attempts to alter fate backfire terribly, and now uses her talent for her own gain by stalking assholes who deserve it in a grim landscape of truck stops and sleazy motels, then robbing them after they bite the dust. She lives by her wits, her allure, and her fists. An interesting premise to say the least. As a protagonist she is tough, sexy, foul-mouthed, dirty in mind and body, and frankly (for this reader anyway) hard to love or even like. There were a few scenes, like Miriam’s encounter with a psychic, that left me breathless and wanting more, but overall I found her difficult to connect with. From other reviews I’ve read, I am not alone on that front. There appears to be a trend in action stories (films in particular) where an ass-kicking, sexy bitch of a girl is superimposed onto what is basically a male character in voice and motivation (in other words she doesn’t squat to piss to borrow the writer’s favorite imagery). On some level I get it, and it can work in the realm of fantasy, but for a gritty noir like Blackbirds (not horror as it’s been described), I wanted a flawed, but human protagonist with whom I could travel with confidence through a story about dangerous people, some anchor of logic–I was dying for a Marlowe or Spade to enter stage left and push poor, fucked-up Miriam back into the shadows where she belongs: a psychopathic mystery at best. Certain archetypes should not be messed with unless the author has a truly gifted insight into a character’s inner workings, to embody that young woman so deeply, to become her in a way so that she reads as nothing but authentic even if the world she occupies borders on the supernatural as it does here.
Lest this be taken as a feminist rant. There have been many successful women writers who’ve written dudes who act like chicks–a certain vampire series comes to mind.
Wendig is a confident and prolific (19 books in five years plus nearly daily copious blog posts!) writer whose calling card is his use of gut-churning, chortle-inducing metaphors and similes coming towards the reader at breakneck speed–often a string of them in one sentence–that could be distracting if he weren’t so damn good at creating them. So often I found myself mesmerized by the writing, but alas, not the story which felt more like a comic or graphic novel–or game. He does write for comics and games, and good for him because I’m sure it’s quite lucrative. His advice on writing is interesting.
I’m thrilled for his obvious success, yet in my humble opinion, if he were to drop the female character (although unlikely there are five more Miriam Black books in the series and a possible TV series) and just let his dirty macho creative energy flow without shame, for all his prolificacy, this talented wordsmith has the potential to enter the pantheon of great noirists along with Chandler and Hammet.