BY MIKE BEEMAN
Edited by Dennis Lehane
Akashic Books, 2009
The Boston Noir collection marks our fair city’s induction in the roving city-themed noir series, “Book Noir,” from Akashic Books. Already the series has seen collections from Brooklyn, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Phoenix, among others. Dennis Lehane is an obvious choice as editor -I’d be be hard-pressed to come up with a close second in terms of Boston crime novelists. He proves a smart choice, as well, and has put together a collection of noir stories as he defines them: working-class tragedies. In this collection, Lehane explores not only crime, or, as he calls it “skuzzy people doing skuzzy things to other skuzzy people,” but explores what the Boston means to the people who live in, and more often just-outside, New England’s second-place city.
Authors in this collection range from immediately recognizable names like Stewart O’Nan and Dan Lee to writers like J. Itabari, who is making her fiction debut in the book. Lehane also included himself in the collection. An editor selecting him or herself for their own collection is usually frowned upon, but as a reader and writer of crime fiction Lehane realizes his omission from a collection of Boston noir would be a glaring one, and his story is a standout.
As any resident of Boston knows, the boundaries of our city are flexible, and extend far beyond downtown. Lehane places stories from the areas more Boston than the common: Southie, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain. But Lehane also traces the social geography our city’s inhabitants know well: the tribal locals, the mystified transplants, the wise-guys longing for the simple and brutal yesterday being erased by gentrification. He shows us the rough past of the north end in “Femme Sole”, a story set in 1745. The anger and confusion and guilt and shame revolving around the priest sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese is explored in all its complexity in John Dufresne’s “The Cross-Eyed Bear.” The commuter mentality is captured perfectly in Lynne Heitman’s story of a woman struggling to break through the glass ceiling in the financial district during the week and who spends her weekends far, far away.
In his intro to this collection Lehane sets himself an ambitious goal. “One of the recurrent themes of Noir has always been the search for a home,” Lehane writes. “Yet the home being searched for in these pages might be Boston, and the journey to find it -however fruitless that goal might turn out to be- is as rich and varied, as hilarious and sad, and ultimately as engaging as the city itself.” The worst of these stories are great noir tales in their own right that evoke the city in a paint-by-numbers fashion (throw in a Red Sox hat here, a view of the Prudential Center there, and, of course, a healthy amount of “wicked,” and your story is set in Boston). In the best, the city itself is acting upon the musician from New York now living in the Back Bay, or the single mother relocated to the suburbs, and becomes the unseen protagonist in the story.
The only fault I find with this collection is that despite the breadth of locations and characters, there seems to be an obvious omission. Lehane writes of the feeling of loss experienced in a “less violent and beiger city”, one being calmed and tamed by progress. Yet we are not presented stories seen from the side of the other. In a city with more students than pigeons, we never enter a campus—high school or college. The collection is free of entitled yuppies, another Boston mainstay. The “beigers” themselves, the affluent upwardly-mobile, the mid-thirties restaurateurs pushing into the south end, the hipsters painting murals over the graffiti in Somerville and Jamaica Plain, and the tourists being guided through the park by a man dressed as Ben Franklin are absent. The part of the city the locals roll their eyes at, but cannot disavow, is not represented. We don’t necessarily need a story to take place on a Mega Super Duck Tour, but it wouldn’t be Boston without hearing their ubiquitous quack.
The idea of setting as a major character in this collection interests me because so much of the idea of Noir is tied up in setting, from Chandler’s Los Angeles to the mean streets of New York. The Noir series has already mined some of the most obvious choices like The Bronx, Chicago, D.C., Havana, Las Vegas, and New Orleans, among others. Now, though, the series is dipping into territory that does not readily lend itself to noir fiction: Richmond, Pheonix, “Indian County,” Trinidad. Trinidad noir? I’m intrigued. Lehane suggests that noir is more than skuzzy people acting skuzzily, and as the series moves away from the more familiar locations I think we will see the definition of noir stretched in new ways. Delaware Noir? Maine Noir? Saskatchewan Noir? I don’t know what those collections would look like, but I can’t wait to find out.