Sunday, May 16, 2010

Baltimore Noir edited by Laura Lippman

This is the third book in Akashic's series of crime anthologies set in cities across the United States and in some cases, the world. I'd really liked the first two books I'd read, but unfortunately I was not charmed at all by the one set in Charm City.

The book starts off pretty good, actually, which is why I was so sad when I hit the second part of the three-section collection and very quickly ran into three adventures that left me cold. Editor Lippman's introductory piece, "Easy as A B C", finds us with a corrupt contractor that cheats on his wife but can't stand it when his lover turns him away. That's a textbook noir plot, and Lippman's snappy writing from the perspective of the killer sets the mood for what I hoped would be more stories in this vein.

The problem is that somewhere along the line, whether to pad the page count (this entry is nearly 100 pages longer than the other two I read, give or take a page) or because she was lacking in stories with a true sense of desperation and grime, we end up getting to the point where there's a cozy with a huge cliche for a solution in the middle of the book.

Now I understand the idea of what makes a story fitting of the noir label is variable depending on who you talk to, and I bet if you asked me twice a few months apart, I might even give you a different answer. But when "Almost Missed It by a Hair" features a woman who does PR for hairdressers solving the crime for her cop sister by using an amateur trick that was old when fellow Baltimorean Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre in the first place, I'm going to cry foul.

That was the only story written by an African American about a city that's overwhelmingly African American and I'd be lying if I said that didn't bother me a bit, especially given the fact that it's not like this anthology is jam-packed with writing gems. I find it a bit hard to believe that there weren't more crime stories written by black authors and set in Baltimore. I find it even harder to believe this when Ben Neihart's "Frog Cycle," possibly the worst story in the collection, doesn't even have any cultural link to Baltimore at all. (Move the exhibit to any other city and it would have worked fine.) I also failed to see anything crime-related about it.

The point of these collections is to spotlight the dark edges of the cities in which the stories are set. And sometimes they do. Robert Ward's "Fat Chance" places a man of Hollywood back into the hells he tried to escape. "Pigtown will Shine Tonight" has a disturbing premise and a character that wants to do the right thing, but also save his skin. "As Seen on TV" by Dan Fesperman skewers the idea of a noir story by having his main character think that he can relive the glories of fictional drama. Those are all great stories that fit the theme.

However, there are just too many that don't. A simple murder to take control of a business or a Scooby-Doo style ghost story, "Goodwood Gardens", do not provide the reader with anything grimy or creepy. I'm afraid that the multiple inclusions of violence against women don't count, either.

Horrific crimes aren't noir, they're terrible crimes. They no more fit into a book like this than an armchair detective piece. You have to give them a feel like the characters have no way out. Time and time again as this anthology progressed, I just wasn't feeling that sense of desperation or situational helplessness. I got in in bits and pieces, such as when David Simon provides us with a drug addict who can't do the right thing in "Stainless Steele," but that's just not enough to carry this anthology through.

Anthologies rest on the backs of their editors, and in this case, I think Ms. Lippman and I have a different definition of what makes for a good noir story. She seemed to be going for a very general idea of revenge crime, if you look at all the stories as a whole. Had this been called "Uncharmed Lives: Baltimore Gets Revenge" I might have felt better about the contents, some of which were pretty well written. But I don't think revenge automatically equals noir, nor do I feel that Ms. Lippman explored enough avenues of possible stories (a lot of these authors all have ties to the Baltimore Sun) to give us a good variety of material.

Overall, Baltimore Noir was a disappointing entry in the Noir series. But after taking a break to finish up things before the move--to Baltimore, as things happen--I'll definitely keep reading more of these anthologies. I'd just recommend that you give this particular volume a pass.

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