The Paperhanger by William Gay from Best American Noir of the Century – review

best american noir of the centuryReviewed by Keith Rawson

For me, there is nothing more disturbing then the loss of a child. I have nightmares of walking through crowded rooms with my 4-year-old daughter’s hand clutched in mine and then suddenly feeling that tiny hand yanked away and I’m left panicked, attempting to push past a river of unmovable bodies as I hear my daughter’s tiny voice call out for me.

As you can probably guess, I inwardly cringed a little when Lindenmuth assigned me “the Paperhanger” for my Best American Noir of the Century review.

“The Paperhanger” is the story of the disappearance of a six-year-old Pakistani girl from right under the nose of her affluent mother and the subsequent aftermath. The story opens as the mother is harassing a wallpaper hanger about the quality of his work and the overall cost of the materials. The paperhanger on the surface is an affable man—albeit somewhat diluted— who attempts to briefly assuage her concerns before she storms from the room and heads out the front door of the rural mansion her doctor husband is having built for their budding family. As the mother stomps to her car, she realizes her daughter did not follow her and returns inside only to discover that the little girl is no where to be found and has seemingly vanished into thin air. The police are called and a massive search is conducted to no avail. As the girl’s disappearance fades from the minds of the police and locals, the lives of the little girl’s parents, and the life of the paperhanger—the last person to actually see her—degrade into a moribund alcoholic haze.

Gay’s foremost power as a writer is his ability to infuse even the most disturbing subject with subtle, masculine poetry. Gay renders the lives of his subjects—and his beloved rural Tennessee—in slate grey tones of loss and indescribable heartache, where all pretensions of their former lives seem like a pointless exercise after the disappearance. The grief of his characters is not earth shattering. No one rages uncontrollably, they simply fade into the ether, shadows of their former lives, as if they wish to do nothing more then disappear. Above all else “The Paperhanger” is a brilliant meditation on the break down of class barriers in the face of tragedy and the need in each of us for emotional closure.


In the last three years Keith Rawson has published over 100 short stories, reviews, interviews, columns, and features. And along with Cameron Ashley and Liam Jose, he publishes and edits Crimefactory Magazine.

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Brian Lindenmuth

Brian is the non-fiction editor of Spinetingler magazine and one of the fiction editors of Snubnose Press. In addition to Spinetingler his work has appeared in Crimespree magazine and at BSC Review, Galleycat and the Mulholland Books website. He also heads the Spinetingler Award committee.

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