Friday, April 9, 2010

Boston Noir edited by Dennis Lehane

I enjoyed the first book I read in this noir series, so I decided to try another one, this time moving all the way across the continent to Boston. I was not disappointed. Boston Noir is another collection of solid sordid tales, and almost as varied as Mexico City was.

Editor Lehane scared me a bit when I first started reading this book, because his introduction talks about noir as being "working class tragedy," and that sounded like a buzzword for pretension if there ever was one. He dismissed the idea of fedoras and private eyes out of hand, and that really bothered me.

Fortunately, the stories themselves were a lot better than the introduction, and we even got a couple of private eyes. And while they may not have been wearing fedoras (well, one of the might have been for all I know), they still had the same shady operation that defines a good noir tale. Whether or not they have a happy ending, none of these stories feature people that are morally pure, and that's just how I like my crime fiction.

If there was a general problem with this edition of the series, I'd say it was in the lack of the city as a character. Mexico City's background featured prominently in the other anthology. In this case, Boston just did not shine through for me. It felt like these tales could be set just about anywhere. Some stories tried harder than others to set the stage, but as a rule I felt the backdrop was a bit lacking. I'll be curious to see what I think about the books set in other cities in this series.

Since I want good stories more than regionalized ones, that really wasn't a problem for me. And this book delivered almost every time. I was particularly impressed by the variety of settings. We get everything from the current day to a pre-Revolutionary War Boston, with a trip to the 1950s thrown in for good measure.

"Femme Sole," the story set in the 18th Century, might be the best of the bunch. Dana Cameron shows the plight of a woman trying to life her own life in an age where that was nearly impossible. But if you were willing to do almost anything, a life alone was possible. The tone is probably a bit too modern, but I loved how it played out.

I also liked the strong entry story, "Exit Interview," where Lynne Heitman plays with the reader in terms of what is going on at a Boston business. Despite the short length, it does the job of keeping the reader off balance very well.

The editor's contribution, "Animal Rescue," shows a kind heart behind the cruel crime writer. An abused dog changes the way the protagonist looks at life, and he ends up using his connections to make life better for the dog and maybe even a young woman. There are degrees of evil in the world, and sometimes it's nice to see the lesser evil win and not feel bad about it.

Those were my favorite stories, but most of the ones in here are pretty good. Though it's pretty straightforward if you read a lot of PI stories, Brendan DuBois's "The Dark Island" is very well constructed. He captures the way a private detective can avenge a crime in a way no lawman can do, and often will. The shades of grey that pervade a story like that also play out in Don Lee's "The Oriental Hair Poets," where our PI must try to figure out which of a pair of poets is lying to him. Does he make the right choice? Or just the one he can live with? It's up to the reader to decide in an ending that's as final as it is mysterious.

"The Place Where He Belongs" is a story of media manipulation, with writer Jim Fusilli missing the boat on the noir angle but still turning in a story I liked about a man who needed a muse. Itabari Njeri is not afraid to give us an older female character as the focal point, and neither is Patricia Powell. Their two entries are sort of book ends, as the former features a woman who doesn't let anyone get the jump on her and the latter runs from one trapped life to another.

The only clunker, at least for me, was John Dufresne's story that takes on the problem of the Boston clergy scandals. I didn't think it worked at all, and felt like he was just using fiction to veil his desire to express anger at what happened. I don't disagree with the sentiment, but I hate stories that preach at me.

Boston Noir may not have put the city of Boston in my mind every time, but it did put a smile on my face as I read a set of excellent stories that for the most part captured the feel of a noir tale well despite writing in the modern age. The authors are as diverse as their stories, which is a real credit to the editor. I definitely recommend this for anyone who likes crime fiction, and I look forward to reading more in Akashic's series of noir stories in the near future.

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