Boston Noir edited by Dennis Lehane – review

It’s easy for a casual visitor to get lost in the winding streets of Boston, and the same proves true for Akashic Books’ noir anthology, Boston Noir.

Dennis Lehane edits this volume of nominally noir short stories — each based in a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts — and his appreciation of the inconclusive and low-impact plotting of literary fiction is evident.  Noir readers expecting a conventional take on the genre or a solid, four-square diet of hardboiled prose will be disappointed.  Many of these stories are better fare for the New Yorker than for Black Mask.  But like Boston, the dead end streets and frustrating journeys surround a few not-to-be-missed gems, both of literary fiction and of the noir genre.

The most outstanding attraction of Boston Noir’s landscape—its Trinity Church—is the piece by Dennis Lehane, Animal Rescue. Optioned for a motion picture to be scripted by Lehane, Animal Rescue will be one of those stories where the print is undoubtedly better than the picture, as Lehane delivers such depth of character through his prose while still keeping it lean and dirty like noir fans enjoy. This is classic noir, with taut descriptions woven into a gritty, realistic story, which vibrate with personality, location and action. Lehane hits all the notes noir lovers want to hear: Distinctive and sordid characters, startling violence and love in the face of desolation.  Animal Rescue is worth the purchase of the book all on its own for a noir fan.

Dennis Lehane’s Animal Rescue isn’t the only landmark that demands a visit — John Dufresne’s Cross-Eyed Bear is another brilliant model of what the noir genre can provide.  In Cross-Eyed Bear, John Dufresne takes noir conventions and wrenches them into a new form that is bewitching and disturbing.  The mystery Dufresne crafts places the mind of the narrator — who may be a perpetrator — as the most engaging mystery.  The crime he grapples with — priest abuse — is unveiled with familiar pacing but with extraordinary sophistication.  The prose is a thrilling fusion of literary complexity and genre fiction simplicity that keeps the tempo pounding while demanding the reader take time to meditate on the twisted.  It is a priceless piece for the noir audience, especially those fascinated with delving the full depths of a depraved mind.

The robust noir doesn’t end there in Boston Noir.

Dana Cameron and Lynne Heitman land solid marks on the genre with stories that echo Boston’s spirit in their impact. With Exit Interview, Lynne Heitman illustrates a desperate, female finance manager has the taut tragedy of the noir form while unveiling the colors distinct to her experience — the misogyny of the financial community, the flavor of Boston’s environs and her unique motivations.  Dana Cameron seizes a noir plot and transplants it artfully into pre-Revolutionary Boston with Femme Sole. Dana Cameron knows her subject well and gets the reader familiar with the setting fast, with descriptions steeped in the antique atmosphere and reflection that clearly relates its attitudes.  She wins that brass ring authors aim for — leaving the readers wanting more — thanks to her command of perilous circumstances and outstanding personalities that struggle in them.

Here the picturesque sites of Boston Noir give way to the other aspect of that city — maze-like plots that are easy to get lost in and little to look at.

Some stray from the path beaten by noir narrative slightly, but lead us down such sleepy surroundings that I couldn’t call the journey worth it. Jim Fusilli serves up such a story, The Place Where He Belongs, involving an edgy element that had my heart kicking — a baby abduction. But the story meanders through motives and developments so inexplicable that the initial rumble ends with a shrug.  In Dark Waters, Patricia Powell sculpts a wonderful character study of a woman paralyzed by the traumas of past and present. There to, the central message of the story — inertia — defines it, bringing it to an ending as inconclusive and static as its subject. The Place Where He Belongs and Dark Waters are splendid writing, but they’re only spiced with noir.  Their substance is softer lit-journal fare.

Others stray even further from the seedy thoroughfares of noir form and into the wilderness of literary indulgence, giving only a wink at the shady stuff of the genre.

For Donald Lee, The Oriental Hair Poets props up its portraits of an unpublished writer, a desolately lonely drunk and Asian-Bostonian culture on the most threadbare of noir plots. Lee does a fine job of weaving colorful elements, but those threads wind up as low-key loose ends. The same applies to the inaccessible and bland The Reward, Stewart O’Nan the author.  And with The Collar, Itabari Njeri demonstrates why she is a fine memoirist — knitting one back story into the next with a rambling voice and baffling tenses — all while giving only the barest dressing in noir. The Collar just slaps on a dash of S&M sleaze to earn its noir cred, while taking the reader through lives rich in detail but rid of coherence.  Brendan DuBois’ The Dark Island is so stripped down and standard in its plot that it has all the charm of an essay on noir. If there is a “box” that noir writers attempt to write out of, DuBois squarely diagrams it, delivering a plot that has all the distinct flavor of cardboard.

Seen not only as the individuals that populate its pages, but as a city, Boston Noir has both luminary points and circuitous slums. Noir readers will have delights, but I urge them to tour selectively if they want their trip to be enjoyable the whole way through. Marvel at Animal Rescue and browse through some of the sites that you know will be of interest, but don’t bother miring yourself in the whole text unless you want a total tour of Boston’s literary voices. Some are as crisp and captivating a darkness as noir has ever produced — I want to give special mention to Russ Aborn in this, a neonate to the genre who expertly assembles a noir story, Turn Speed, from elements that speak bold about Boston, crime and character. Turn Speed is a model of the genre, made with a true love and understanding of noir that is luminous and charmingly local.  But some voices are more Boston than they are noir, having the rich character of the communities they describe, but lacking the satisfying snap of a bone-hard noir narrative.

Matthew C. Funk is a professional writer in marketing for corporate America, a writing mentor and the author of several manuscripts that illuminate the beauty of human extremes. A graduate of the Professional Writing MFA at USC, his online work is featured at sites such as Powder Burn Flash; Thrillers, Killers and Chillers; Twist of Noir; Six Sentences and his Web domain.

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