In an increasingly difficult publishing environment, Akashic Books has hit upon a system for success, publishing noir collections set in most American states, many American cities and other countries and cities all over the world. Joyce Carol Oates edited “New Jersey Noir.” There is a “Zagreb Noir” and a “Prague Noir.”
Noir is definitely in vogue, but what exactly is it?
Some may know noir writing either from the hard-boiled detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain or Mickey Spillane. Film noir thrived in the ’50s but today’s viewers may best remember “Chinatown” with Jack Nicholson and John Huston.
Noir is, of course, dark. This genre explores the human capacity for violence, treachery. The classical noir might have a mystery to be solved, revenge to be sought, but not through the regular police procedural, more likely by a private detective or even a private citizen.
Generally speaking, noir does not deal in happy endings.
Although the classic noir might take place in a foggy alley in San Francisco, it can just as easily happen in the steaming Mississippi Delta or in Biloxi. Tom Franklin, whose books “Poachers” and “Hell at the Breech” are themselves plenty dark and violent, has assembled 16 Mississippi writers who have created new stories set all over the Magnolia State in "Mississippi Noir."
These are stories of violence and murder, thievery, madness, adultery, rape, incest, abuse, often intertwined when the madness of overwhelming love or lust leads to adultery, violence and revenge.
Noir is a tangle.
The most intricate of these Mississippi stories, by Megan Abbott, is set in Oxford at Ole Miss and is based on a 17th-century English folk ballad. There is a fair young maiden, in this case a Chi O from Batesville, and a young Kappa Sig gentleman. Those familiar with the fates of fair young maidens in ballads will not be surprised, but the telling is elegant, switching points of view back and forth until the inevitable sad conclusion.
The volume opens with Ace Atkins’ story of an already impoverished life made intolerable when the 14-year-old girl is abused by her mother’s boyfriend. The girl, Shelby, tells her friend, “sometimes a person’s life would be better if someone wasn’t on the planet.” Soon, someone won’t be.
One might expect several stories of racial violence in a Mississippi volume but this is not the case.
“God’s Gonna Trouble the Water,” by Dominiqua Dickey, perhaps comes closest. Set in the 1930s, this is a story of desperate interracial love. The frustration, the seeming impossibility of living out one’s desires for a conventional life is overwhelming. Elnora, the wise aunt, concludes ruefully: “Life should have more to offer than the act of waiting for the next dose of trouble to arrive.”
Robert Busby’s “Anglers of the Deep” explores the killing power of guilt, even when the horrendous act committed was an accident.
With so many of the contributors themselves writing teachers, a creative writing story was inevitable. “Digits,” by Michael Kardos, is a good one. Mr. P is teaching a fiction writing class of “almost uniformly gentle, kind, and Christian” students, “totally secure in all their beliefs about God and man.” And yet he pushes a little, urging them to consider some of life’s darker possibilities. He hasn’t asked them to experience suffering to deepen their writing, but that’s what they do.
Noir stories are infinitely varied, with little uplift, but they are engrossing and, when artful, rarely depressing.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.