Can a collection of short stories provide a glimpse of how a city sees itself?
That’s what I was left pondering after reading the latest anthology of urban crime fiction from Akashic Books: San Diego Noir. Comprising 15 stories of murder and mayhem, the collection takes its readers on a tour of our city’s dark side.
These tales of crime and punishment feature plucky detectives circa WWII, National City vatos and a deranged Iraq war veteran who gets a little too attached to a parking space. In Martha C. Lawrence’s beautifully written “Key Witness,” a psychic investigator helps solve the mystery of a beautiful girl found handcuffed to a chain anchored to the bottom of La Jolla Cove. “For one hopeful moment I thought she might be a mermaid, unencumbered as she was by scuba gear. But mermaids don’t wear bikinis.”
Edited by Maryelizabeth Hart, co-owner of Mysterious Galaxy Books, these stories aren’t shy about cozying up to other genres. The discerning reader will find examples of historical fiction, romance, fantasy and the supernatural. But are they noir?
Not necessarily. Although the plots are packed with double crosses, sleazy crime bosses and hardheaded police detectives, few of the stories exhibit the paranoid hysteria that is the hallmark of a noir landscape, where no one can be trusted and danger lurks around every corner. Lisa Brackmann’s “Don’t Feed the Bums” best captures the feeling of unrelenting dread in her depiction of a woman recovering from an unnamed trauma. As she comes to terms with losing her old life and starting a new one, she discovers that her caretakers may not have her best interest at heart.
Taken as a whole, San Diego Noir seems curiously out of touch with the city’s crime blotter. I live in Paradise Hills, which has provided fodder for noir stories in recent weeks with teenage killers luring a young man to his death via craigslist and a bizarre murder/suicide pact that claimed an entire family of four. To be fair, true crime is not noir. Nor does noir have to be set in a rigidly recognizable world to be successful—Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a perfect example of noir that collides with other genres.
However, too many of the writers endeavor to expose the “underbelly” of places that don’t have one, places like Del Mar, Mount Soledad and Rancho Santa Fe. And only one story is set south of Downtown: Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The National City Reparation Society,” a humorous romp that veers between satire and camp.
What does it say about San Diegans that a book that professes to explore the city’s dark side ignores the powder keg of crime, corruption and gruesome violence on the other side of the border?
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect dark stories from a place that gets 300 days of sunshine a year, but San Diego Noir feels like a bad day at the beach: washed out, breezy and gray.
Lisa Brackmann will talk about San Diego Noir at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 25, at the Ocean Beach Library.
As something of a corrective, I’ve compiled a short list of books with high body counts that bring the darkness in bold and daring ways:
This Glittering World by San Diego writer T. Greenwood opens with the novel’s protagonist discovering the body of a dead Indian. The plot thickens when he recognizes the badly beaten boy from his bar and gets emotionally involved with the victim’s sister.
I pair Untouchable by Scott O’Connor and Pacazo by Roy Kesey because both writers were in town earlier this month to read from their new novels and they share a conceit: Untouchable tells the story of a trauma disposal technician trying to cope with the way his wife’s death has impacted his 11-year-old son. Pacazo attempts to answer the question: What do you do when your Peruvian wife is raped and left for dead in the desert by a taxi driver shortly after giving birth to your daughter? Answer: You be the best father you can be, and you take a lot of taxis in the hopes of catching the killer. Of the two, Untouchable ranks slightly higher on the noir scale because it’s set during the waning days of 1999 and the Y2K hysteria is reminiscent of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust.
Grace Krilanovich lives in Los Angeles, but her debut novel, The Orange Eats Creeps, is set in the Pacific Northwest, where a band of teenage hobo vampire junkies roams the ruins of cemeteries and convenience stores, preying on girls who like to stay up all night. “Never get old! As a vampire you’re undead; as a sexy girl you’re dying all the time,” opines one “victim” (Page 29). Not to state the obvious, but the author really, really loves the movie The Lost Boys.
Suicide by Edouard Levé sounds like a real downer, but the circumstances surrounding the publication of this slender novel make it all but un-put-downable. Shortly after turning in the manuscript, the French author killed himself, making the novel, about the aftermath of a suicide, a deeply enigmatic and surprisingly suspenseful farewell.
Today & Tomorrow by Ofelia Hunt features a heroine who’s by turns beguiling and repugnant. She shoplifts. She’s a compulsive liar. She likes to ice skate. Bracketing the book with a pair of mysterious deaths for which she may or may not be responsible, Hunt’s protagonist is unlikable, unpredictable and a lot like you and me.
The Sisters Brothers by Portland author Patrick deWitt is a neo-westeset in northern California at the dawn of the Gold Rush. Eli and Charlie Sisters are a) brothers and b) hired guns. Both are killers, but of the two, only Eli—the novel’s narrator—has a conscience. In a memorable exchange with a prostitute, Eli is asked, “You got all the romantic blood, is that it?” His answer: “Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.” If you like genre-bending weirdness and were disappointed in the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit, The Sisters Brothers is for you.
Jim Ruland is the author of the short story collection Big Lonesome and the host of Vermin on the Mount.