Akashic Noir

In my love of travel, I find myself fascinated by the different personalities and feelings of various cities throughout the world, and what makes each unique. What secrets do they hold, and what is hidden below the surface? Even in a city you know well, that you live in, you can discover things you never knew before (a main reason for the existence of my other blog, MSP Adventure Time). When I get a chance to go abroad, I like to read up on my destination, and often continue this reading during and after the trip. Also, for those times when travel to foreign climes and distant cities are beyond my means, I can always check them out through books.

This is why I find the Akashic Noir series of mystery anthologies so interesting. I find Noir to be one of the most flexible and intriguing genres, often indefinable and yet full of style, offering room for multiple interpretations and differing takes on venerable suspense and crime fiction tropes, taking on gritty realism, humor, and just plain weirdness. The series has been an interesting take on the genre, filtering these sordid tales of crime, passion, and greed through the cultural lens of various world cities. Each features the work of authors based in their specific region, so there is often some interesting details to be found about the attitudes and quirks of each locale. While they’ve been a bit of a mixed bag in terms of the quality of the stories, recently I’ve enjoyed reading them and reminiscing about my visits to those cities.

16057199Of course, the first I read was the one based in my own hometown. I read Twin Cities Noir in 2007, soon after its publication, intrigued by a collection that drew upon the quirkiness and dark under belly of the Twin Cities. After having now read a few more in the series, I have to say that TC Noir remains among the most thematic of the series. I recently revisited the title with its expanded edition and the three new stories included in the collection turned out to be three of my favorites. I think I might enjoy the “noir” genre more than other types of mystery, exploring theme, atmosphere and characterization as much as just a rote “who-dun-it” plot, and the additions of John Jodzio, Peter Schilling Jr., and especially the short comic of Tom Kaczynski really illustrate this.

Minnesota has a vibrant and growing community of mystery writers and this volume showcases their talents well. While the stories varied in their depiction of Minneapolis and St. Paul (some used the city as mere backdrop, while others drew distinctive local color into their narratives), they are quite evocative of the culture of the Twin Cities and Minnesota in general, its diversity and idiosyncrasies both. A variety of styles are explored, from surreal, almost magic realist, to traditionalist film noir crime drama. A handful of period pieces set in the 1890s and 1930s (both very evocative periods) round it out, some go for humor and others for introspection, others for pure action, a good mix. At worst, the stories are only okay.Kaczynski’s almost mystical depiction of the Minneapolis skyway defies genre. These stories join other worthy tales in the collection, including very popular writers William Kent Krueger, Ellen Hart, Pete Hautman, and Steve Thayer. I’d recommend this as a fun, quick, gritty read that explores the breadth of the flexible noir style and the quirks of Minnesota.

After having visited Portland, Oregon a few times, I have experienced firsthand that the 5645913city of roses has a personality all its own, which is reflected well in Portland Noir. From the twee humor of the modern gentrified Portlandia to the seedy history of Old Town and its shanghai tunnels, this entry  highlights the conflicting and quirky nature of the Pacific Northwest city.

Like others in the series, this collection has some stories that work better than others, but for the most part this is an effective collection linked strongly to the Portland setting, and from a variety of noir styles and approaches. The Red Room, set in Powell’s City of Books, is a good example, along with Hummingbird, and Shanghaied. One interesting aspect of Portland Noir, unlike the others I have read in the series, is that all of the stories contained inside have contemporary settings; while a few delve into the mysteries and horrors of the past, none are period pieces. While I do enjoy stories set in the past, in this case it almost gives the stories a more coherent, unified feeling. All in all, a satisfying collection that captures, I feel, the mood of the place.

5083640I have probably spent more time in Seattle than any other city outside the Twin Cities, and I definitely regard it fondly and look forward to any chance to visit. While the Pacific Northwest shares some cultural traits with my home in the Upper Midwest, the coast and the mountains give it an entirely different feel. There is a grittiness along the steep, mist drenched streets of Seattle that can not be found in Minneapolis-St. Paul, though perhaps may be found a bit in Duluth. In any case, there is much material to draw upon along the shores of Puget Sound for noir tales, and I was looking forward to reading about the human drama found under the shadow of the gleaming white Space Needle and the distant snowy form of Mount Rainier.

Unfortunately, this entry had the weakest evocation of the setting of any of the series I’ve read. There was something lacking in a majority of the stories in this collection, sadly. The city of Seattle seems merely incidental in most of them, and for the most part, they seem to stick to tired, well worn noir cliches, with few surprises. Corrupt cops, homeless PIs, mysterious murders- nothing that really sticks out; even the 1940s and 1880s period pieces lacked much of a sense of place. There was also a rather unfortunate element of racism in a few of the stories as well, especially What Price Retribution? There were a few stories that stood out, though, in particular Paper Son (an interesting multicultural story set in the 1880s), Center of the Universe (a story highlighting Seattle’s quirky people), Wrong End of the Gun (which, while not drawing much from the setting had an interesting twist), and The Magnolia Bluff (which had some of the best characterization in the collection). The rest of the stories were, at best, okay. I’d recommend Portland Noir as the superior Akashic Noir title focusing on the Pacific Northwest.

7183298I traveled to Orange County, California, with my sweetheart a few months ago, visiting her family and her hometown. I’d never been to Southern California so I enjoyed exploring this odd, new land! After my return, when I saw that a volume was devoted to this strange and fascinating place, I was eager to check it out and return to the sunny coast. It was, unfortunately, among the most disappointing entries in the series I’ve read so far.

Consisting of 13 short stories set in the contemporary communities across Orange County, the collection touted the contradictions of these tales of the dark underbelly of a region known for sun, surf, and suburban conformity, but sadly seemed rarely to really dive into these paradoxes. The great majority of the stories seemed plagued by rote stereotypes and boring, predictable tropes; you know, pointless double-crosses, down on their luck men, and lots and lots of women being murdered. The callous murder of women seemed to be the major theme across a majority of the stories, which became more than a little tiresome. Also, little local color seems to be maintained either, in spite of their name dropping local roads and neighborhoods.

Only a few stories in the collection seemed both to tell an engaging, original story and take advantage of the unique setting of Orange County, specifically Diverters by Rob Roberge set in Tustin, Bee Canyon by Susan Straight set in the Santa Ana Narrows (not a real place as far as I or google maps can tell), and Dark Matter by Martin J. Smith set on Balboa Island. This trio told fresh, interesting stories rooted in their repective places, while the rest felt like they could have taken place anywhere, and ranged from okay to downright awful (ugh, Down in Capistrano and Old, Cold Hand in particular, with their retrograde racism and sexism).

555503I also read the entry devoted to Los Angeles, on the other hand, and mostly had a good time with it. The tone of the stories run from comical to bleak, but all deal with the seedier, more underground aspects of life in LA. The anthology does a decent job of capturing the feel of the city (though one in which I have still spent very little time in), but may not have realized it to its full potential.

There were a few aspects of the collection that were a little disappointing, I felt. In spite of its venerable history of being the veritable birthplace of film noir and the origin of many of the tropes of the genre, it seemed that none of the stories here really drew upon that background. All of the stories were set in contemporary times, with none taking advantage of this history as backdrop for period pieces. A few of the stories were pretty rote, paint by numbers affairs, with the common, unavoidable cliches of the genre played pretty straight; dames, double crosses, detectives, et cetera. Also, the stories tended to end abruptly and sometimes with little resolution, though if the atmosphere is impeccable this can be a plus. More often here, it just felt like the plot running out of space. Still, the collection did provide a bit more to chew on than the Orange County entry, though not as much as one would hope from such an iconic locale.

18853553The last of the series I read, Singapore Noir, is the one that I have yet, sadly, to have visited and it was also among my favorites. In spite of (or perhaps, because of?) my unfamiliarity with the Southeast Asian economic powerhouse city state, all the stories in this collection felt fresh, interesting. Delving into the fraught history of this melting pot of cultures, with its famous cuisine, harsh laws, distinctive “Singlish” pidgin, and chilling ghost stories, each of the authors here have captured something interesting about this city. Even after all the murders and double crossings, not to mention spookier denizens, this one made me even more eager to visit. I’ll have to read it again if I ever find myself in Singapore! and take advantage of the unique setting of Orange County, specifically Diverters by Rob Roberge set in Tustin, Bee Canyon by Susan Straight set in the Santa Ana Narrows (not a real place as far as I or google maps can tell), and Dark Matter by Martin J. Smith set on Balboa Island. This trio told fresh, interesting stories rooted in their repective places, while the rest felt like they could have taken place anywhere, and ranged from okay to downright awful (ugh, Down in Capistrano and Old, Cold Hand in particular, with their retrograde racism and sexism).


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