Posts Tagged ‘crime fiction’
Whether they’re reissues, reprints, or originals, there are some great books coming out in August in paperback. Here are just a few.
Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (reissue)
The classic study of the creative process from the national bestselling author of Flow.
Creativity is about capturing those moments that make life worth living. Legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reveals what leads to these moments—be it the excitement of the artist at the easel or the scientist in the lab—so that this knowledge can be used to enrich people’s lives. Drawing on nearly one hundred interviews with exceptional people, from biologists and physicists, to politicians and business leaders, to poets and artists, as well as his thirty years of research on the subject, Csikszentmihalyi uses his famous flow theory to explore the creative process. He discusses such ideas as why creative individuals are often seen as selfish and arrogant, and why the “tortured genius” is largely a myth. Most important, he explains why creativity needs to be cultivated and is necessary for the future of our country, if not the world.
My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum
Wayne Koestenbaum has been described as “an impossible lovechild from a late-night, drunken three-way between Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag” (Bidoun). In My 1980s and Other Essays, a collection of extravagant range and style, he rises to the challenge of that improbable description.
My 1980s and Other Essays opens with a series of manifestos—or, perhaps more appropriately, a series of impassioned disclosures, intellectual and personal. It then proceeds to wrestle with a series of major cultural figures, the author’s own lodestars and lodestones: literary (John Ashbery, Roberto Bolaño, James Schuyler), artistic (Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol), and simply iconic (Brigitte Bardot, Cary Grant, Lana Turner). And then there is the personal—the voice, the style, the flair—that is unquestionably Koestenbaum. It amounts to a kind of intellectual autobiography that culminates in a string of passionate calls to creativity; arguments in favor of detail and nuance, and attention; a defense of pleasure, hunger, and desire in culture and experience.
Koestenbaum is perched on the cusp of being a true public intellectual—his venues are more mainstream than academic, his style is eye-catching, his prose unfailingly witty and passionate, his interests profoundly wide-ranging and popular. My 1980s should be the book that pushes Koestenbaum off that cusp and truly into the public eye.
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain
An exquisite debut novel that brilliantly captures the lives and romances of young expatriates in newly democratic Prague It’s October 1990. Jacob Putnam is young and full of ideas. He’s arrived a year too late to witness Czechoslovakia’s revolution, but he still hopes to find its spirit, somehow. He discovers a country at a crossroads between communism and capitalism, and a picturesque city overflowing with a vibrant, searching sense of possibility. As the men and women Jacob meets begin to fall in love with one another, no one turns out to be quite the same as the idea Jacob has of them—including Jacob himself.
Necessary Errors is the long-awaited first novel from literary critic and journalist Caleb Crain. Shimmering and expansive, Crain’s prose richly captures the turbulent feelings and discoveries of youth as it stretches toward adulthood—the chance encounters that grow into lasting, unforgettable experiences and the surprises of our first ventures into a foreign world—and the treasure of living in Prague during an era of historic change.
The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley
Volumes disappear and reappear on the shelves, but the ghosts of literature aren’t the only mysterious visitors in Roger Mifflin’s haunted bookshop.
Mifflin, who hawked books out of the back of his van in Christopher Morley’s beloved Parnassus on Wheels, has finally settled down with his own secondhand bookstore in Brooklyn. There, he and his wife, Helen, are content to live and work together, prescribing literature to those who hardly know how much they need it. When Aubrey Gilbert, a young advertising man, visits the shop, he quickly falls under the spell of Mifflin’s young assistant, Titania. But something is amiss in the bookshop, something Mifflin is too distracted to notice, and Gilbert has no choice but to take the young woman’s safety into his own hands. Her life—and the Mifflins’—may depend on it.
Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett
In The Man Who Sold the World, acclaimed journalist Peter Doggett explores the rich heritage of David Bowie’s most productive and inspired decade. Viewing the artist through the lens of his music and his many guises, Doggett offers a detailed analysis—musical, lyrical, conceptual, social—of every song Bowie wrote and recorded during that period, as well as a brilliant exploration of the development of a performer who profoundly affected popular music and the idea of stardom itself.
Twin Cities Noir edited by Julie Schaper and Steven Horwitz
Launched in the summer ’04, Akashic Books continues its groundbreaking series of original noir anthologies. Each book is comprised of all-new stories, each one set in a distinct neighborhood or location within the city of the book.
Brand-new stories by John Jodzio, Tom Kaczynski, Peter Schilling Jr., David Housewright, Steve Thayer, Judith Guest, Mary Logue, Bruce Rubenstein, K.J. Erickson, William Kent Krueger, Ellen Hart, Brad Zellar, Mary Sharratt, Pete Hautman, Larry Millett, Quinton Skinner, Gary Bush, and Chris Everheart.
The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman
In The Half-Made World, Felix Gilman took readers deep into a world on the cusp of forging an identity. The Line, a cult of Industry, and the Gun, a mission of Chaos, were engaged in a war for dominance. The Line was winning city by city, enslaving the populations it conquered. A doctor of psychology, Liv Alverhuysen, was caught in the middle, unknowingly guarding a secret that both sides would do anything to have.
Now Liv is lost on the edge of the world with Creedmor, an agent of the Gun, and the powerful Line will stop at nothing to find them. But Harry Ransom, half con man, half mad inventor, is setting the edge of the world aglow. Town by town he is building up a bankroll and leaving hope in his wake because one of his inventions is actually working. But his genius is not going unnoticed, and when he crosses paths with the two most wanted outlaws in the “unmade world,” his stage becomes even larger and presents an opportunity more lucrative than any of his scams or inventions combined.
*Descriptions for these books have been provided by the publishers.
On his way to his niece’s wedding in Arizona, Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, picked up a young female hitchhiker, took her as far as the California side of the border, and continued on his way. The next day she’s found dead in a canal near his family’s home in Phoenix. She’d had an illegal abortion, which was botched, but the cause of death was a blow to the head.
Not until a few dozen pages into the story do we learn that Densmore is black. The girl, being white, and it being that time and place, he becomes the prime suspect. At first he tries to prove his innocence on his own but, after getting nowhere, a friend convinces him to accept the help of Skye Houston, one of the country’s top lawyers—and a white man.
Published in 1963, The Expendable Man, a crime novel written from the point of view of the accused, echos the race relations of its day.
Any rational reader will get chills not from the description of the murder, or the menacing, suspense-filled cloud that hangs over Densmore’s head, but from the state of the justice system in which this case operates. Christine Smallwood, writing in The New Yorker, says of the book’s author, Dorothy B. Hughes, “It is not whodunit, but who-ness itself, that she’s after.”
To Hughes it’s not the criminal procedure that’s interesting, it’s the relationships that guide the procedure. The Expendable Man is not so much hardboiled fiction as it is an exploration of social issues.
He had wound through the small canyon outside of town, and was moving on to the long desert plain, when he noted ahead an extra shadow in the tree shadow marking a culvert. It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.
It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. But he reduced speed when he approached the shadow, the automatic anxiety reaction that a person might step in front of the oncoming car. He passed the hitchhiker before he was actually aware of the shape and form; only after he had passed did he realize that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.
Noir, also known as hardboiled, is the gritty, world-weary subcategory of crime fiction, recognizable by its unsentimental protagonist, the rogue private detective; an early and gruesome murder; and a pretty girl who is most likely not telling the truth. The dialogue is often hyperbolic and the characters cartoonish, but that’s what makes the genre so good–and why so many of its forebears are still celebrated and imitated today.
Dashiell Hammett is one such writer. Even those who don’t read detective fiction know his name and still more know of his influential work, The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon, to summarize, is the multi-layered detective story that begins with a woman, Miss Wonderly from New York, visiting Private Detective Samuel Spade’s office in San Francisco. She’s come to find her sister who has allegedly run away with a man she assumes to be dangerous and hires Spade to find him.
Spade assigns the case to his naive partner, Miles Archer, only to receive a phone call about his murder a few hours later: “Hello. … Yes, speaking. … Dead? … Yes … Fifteen minutes. Thanks” is all we hear.
Although set in California readers see very little sun. The mood is dark, gloomy, almost claustrophobic.
Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America–face down on the table–held its hands at five minutes past two.
It’s this vivid imagery that stands out while reading Hammett. In fact, the more I read noir, the more I realize there is a manner in which people and events are described that is unique to the genre.
Hammett’s Sam Spade is an archetype, the ideal noir detective: he’s not swayed by emotion or a woman’s looks; he operates outside of the law, but only to bring about truth and justice; and most important, possibly the crux of his appeal, is that if he’s not already one step ahead of his enemies, he eventually gets there.
Hammett opens with this image of Spade:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
Another core character, as alluded to above, is the femme fatale, French for “deadly woman.” In contemporary noir, I’ve found the descriptions of these women tailored to fit today’s more enlightened view of the sexes but in Hammett’s time there were no such conventions. Here is the description of Miss Wonderly, the first glimpse of what she looks like:
She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.
It’s not just the lengthy paragraphs of description that grab you, there are many one-liners as well: “Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn” and “His eyes burned yellowly” for example. Then there are the snappy retorts begging to be committed to memory: “I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.” Or, the less useful but equally compelling, “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”
Hammett wrote detective fiction with an advantage. He had real life experience. Before picking up the pen he’d spent years as a detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private organization that also employed security guards and military contractors. Hammett knew how investigations worked, what stakeouts were like, and how the different players might react. This realism adds to the story’s brutishness.
Fellow classic noir author Raymond Chandler once credited Hammett with making “the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.” The same can be said for the reading experience he inspires. However, The Maltese Falcon is more than a fast-paced, gritty crime novel, it’s also a lesson in seeing.
Buy The Maltese Falcon at your local bookstore
Whenever anyone asks me where I plan to travel next, without skipping a beat I say Russia. I’ve long been fascinated by the country: its ruthless winters, its self-serious cultural history, and its tortured political past. I know my view of Russia is anachronistic, as if there were a switch that flips it from 1880 to 1980 and back again with very little in between or after. I often imagine stepping off the plane and sinking knee-deep into the quicksand of days gone by.
I know the country is no longer the land of revolutionaries conspiring to overthrow the czar and that the fields are no longer littered with peasants, stooped and head-covered, hacking away at wheat with their scythes; I know the political and economic landscape has changed and with it the arts as well.
It’s actually the Russia of today that keeps me from reserving a hotel room and booking a flight. Thoughts of Moscow fill my mind with visions of great wealth discrepancy—nouveau riche on the streets of Moscow, women draped in furs with diamonds hanging off their fingers, and men in Armani suits opening the doors of shiny, black Mercedes for them. Meanwhile, in the parks I can see bums sleeping on benches, surrounded by empty bottles. At least this is the reason I tell myself why I haven’t visited yet but my noble stance falls apart when you consider my daily walk to the subway includes passing numerous homeless people either passed out or crouching in doorways while me and my peers head off to office jobs or the local coffee shop for a day of freelancing. In the end, it’s laziness more than a sensitivity to human suffering that keeps me from leaving the country.
So, how does a lazy, wannabe traveler experience Russia’s present day culture without an airline ticket? Well, if you’re like me, you head to the nearest bookstore and look for a good novel. While it’s hard to argue that reading a book and visiting a country are on equal footing, one can surely soak up a sense of a culture through literary voyeurism.
When many of us think of Russian writers it’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov that come to mind; and if we’ve read anything at all it’s Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and for those who scratch surfaces, possibly The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov. These selections are only encouraged when perusing the literature section of many bookshops but if you’re someone who has read all the classics they wish to encounter, or if you would rather read contemporary fiction, finding new voices can be frustrating.
Even at the best bookstore, the Russian titles range from those published in the 1800s to those from the Soviet-era. While byzantine governments often make for interesting tales, the USSR dissolved in 1991 and it’s time for our shelves to reflect the change. Much of the absence of modern day Russian writing is in large part due to lack of translations. Modern day works in English are hard to come by simply because they don’t exist.
Lucky for those interested, just this past June, New York-based publishing house Overlook Press announced it was partnering with the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication (also known as Rospechat). Together, they will publish at least 125 classic and contemporary titles in English over the next 10 years, beginning in 2013.
The goal of the project, which will include fiction, drama, and poetry, says Overlook publisher, Peter Mayer, “is to transcend the well-respected classics and broaden the awareness of Russian culture by making available for the first time in uniform editions these important works of literature, so many barely known outside Russia.” Which contemporary authors and titles they will publish is yet to be announced.
For those who want to start now, Akashic Books has two collections of contemporary Russian crime writers in their excellent noir series. In 2010 they released Moscow Noir, edited by Petersburg-based literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen. This month, the same editors return with St. Petersburg Noir, featuring a new crop of writers to discover.
However manufactured for literary effect the stories may be, both books offer a strong sense of place. Just one example is “Europe After the Rain” by Alexei Evdokimov (Moscow Noir):
Here, the river and the open space in front of Kiev station leave a large expanse open to view. Here, you can really see the sky, which is rare in this capital city that squeezes you between enormous stone slabs. The view that spreads out before you here—the Gothic silhouette of the university on a distant bluff to the left, the palisade of mighty pipes on top of the Radisson, the spire of the Hotel Ukraine perpendicular to layers of lilac clouds—is one of those typical and utterly urban landscapes that create the face of a city, which Moscow, monstrous and vague with its eroded individuality, so lacks.
While these two collections are not the strongest in the series, a difficult task if there ever was one, they succeed in bringing much-needed attention to genre writing happening in Russia today.
In their introduction to the Moscow collection, Smirnova and Goumen explain the state of crime fiction in their country: “A noir literary tradition does not yet really exist in Russia in general or Moscow in particular. Why? Possibly due to the censorship of czarist Russia, to say nothing of the Soviet era.”
However, for their St. Petersburg introduction they claim a different legacy:
Petersburg somehow nurtures ironic, satirical, and darkly humorous interpretations of reality. The darker and harsher life gets, the more humorous its interpretations tend to be. Indeed, only at a Petersburg house party could writers argue enthusiastically over the most efficient way to get rid of a corpse … The origins of this rich noir tradition come from the city’s history, its urban landscape, and even the weather, as Petersburg’s climate undoubtedly affects local character. What morbid thoughts can freezing winds from the Baltics bring along? Which emotions swirl inside a person struggling through snowdrifts in the streets? How can one remain positive when the long-awaited northern “summer” offers less than a dozen sunny days?
An annotated travel guide of sorts, these two collections—so obviously tailored to the psyche of their respective city—offer a look into the individualism that exists in this vast country today; and as I had craved, many of the stories struggle with post-Soviet Russia, its identity and inner workings, and the residue left from the previous decades. Regardless of what impact Russian masters might have had on the literary landscape, the country’s noir—and more broadly, the writing coming from this new generation—has a fresh feel, one of promise and commitment to the days ahead.
Anyone interested in bringing contemporary Russian writers to an American audience should support these new and forthcoming publications. If there’s a show of interest from the reading public, there’s a chance we’ll see more from these new voices.
July is an exciting month in the world of paperbacks. These are the new releases I’m looking forward to seeing hit the bookstores in the next few days. Look for them as you wander around the front tables this weekend. The comments are open below, what paperback releases are you looking forward to?
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
by Cheryl Strayed
Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.
The Nervous System
by Nathan Larson
After a series of large-scale terrorist attacks, New York City is reduced to a shadow of its former self. As the city struggles to dig itself out of the wreckage, a nameless, obsessive-compulsive veteran with a spotty memory, a love for literature, and a strong if unique moral code has taken up residence at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Dubbed “Dewey Decimal” for his desire to reorganize the library’s stock, he gets by as bagman and muscle for unscrupulous politicians and underworld figures—as detailed in the first book in this series, The Dewey Decimal System.
In The Nervous System, Decimal, attempting to clean up loose ends after the violent events in the first book, stumbles upon information concerning the gruesome murder of a prostitute and a prominent US senator’s involvement. Immediately he finds himself chasing ghosts and fighting for his life, pursued by Blackwater-style private military contractors and the ever-present specter of his own past. Decimal confronts a twilight world of Korean hostess bars, childhood bogeymen, and the face of the military-industrial complex gone haywire—all framed by a city descending toward total chaos.
The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction
by Diego Trelles Paz (Editor); Janet Hendrickson (Translator)
The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction brings together twenty-three Latin American writers who were born between 1970 and 1980. The anthology offers an exciting overview of contemporary Spanish-language literature and introduces a generation of writers who came of age in the time of military dictatorships, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the birth of the Internet, the murders of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the September 11th attacks in New York City.
The anthology features: Oliverio Coelho, Federico Falco, and Samanta Schweblin (Argentina); Giovanna Rivero (Bolivia); Santiago Nazarian (Brazil); Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Antonio Ungar (Colombia); Ena Lucía Portela (Cuba); Lina Meruane, Andrea Jeftanovic, and Alejandro Zambra (Chile); Ronald Flores (Guatemala); Tryno Maldonado and Antonio Ortuño (México); María del Carmen Pérez Cuadra (Nicaragua); Carlos Wynter Melo (Panama); Daniel Alarcón and Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru); Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico); Ariadna Vásquez (Dominican Republic); Ignacio Alcuri and Inés Bortagaray (Uruguay); and Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela).
by Enrique Vila-Matas; Anne McLean (Translator); Anna Milsom (Translator)
Dublinesque opens with a renowned and retired literary publisher’s dream: he finds himself in Dublin, a city he’s never visited, and the mood is full of passion and despair. Afterwards he’s obsessed with the dream, and brings three of the writers he published on a trip to the same cemetery where Paddy Dignam was buried in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where they hold a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age.” And then he notices that he’s being shadowed by a mysterious man who looks exactly like Samuel Beckett…
In this witty and poignant novel, perhaps his finest yet, Enrique Vila-Matas traces a journey that connects the worlds of Joyce and Beckett and all they symbolize: great literature and evidence of the difficulties faced by literary authors, publishers, and good readers, their struggle to survive in a society where literature is losing influence.
Your Voice in My Head: A Memoir
by Emma Forrest
Emma Forrest’s memoir was called “a journey of healing” by Interview magazine and “a beautifully written eulogy for the doctor she credits with saving her life” by Los Angeles Magazine. The book received acclaim from reviewers across the country, the movie rights were snatched up quickly, and Emma herself enchanted audiences at readings in New York and Los Angeles. Brave, brilliantly written, and anchored in the reality of everyday life, Your Voice in My Head is destined to become a classic of the genre.
An excerpt at The Guardian
Emma’s essay in The New York Times
Emma’s essay in The Paris Review
Emma’s Book Notes piece for the soundtrack to Your Voice
Maud Newton reviews Your Voice in My Head at The Awl
An interview with Interview Magazine
An interview with Ron Hogan
The No Variations: Journal of an Unfinished Novel
by Luis Chitarroni; Rhett McNeil (Translator)
A cryptic, self-negating series of notes for an unfinished work of fiction, this astonishing book is made up of ideas for characters and plot points, anecdotes and tales, literary references both real and invented, and populated by an array of fictional authors and their respective literary cliques, all of whom sport multiple pseudonyms, publish their own literary journals, and produce their own ideas for books, characters, poems . . . A dizzying look at the ugly backrooms of literature, where aesthetic ambitions are forever under siege by petty squabbles, long-nurtured grudges, envied or undeserved prizes, bankrupt publishers, and self-important critics, The No Variations is a serious game, or perhaps a frivolous tragedy, with the author and his menagerie of invented peers fighting to keep their feelings of futility at bay. A literary cousin to David Markson and César Aira,The No Variations is one of the great “novels” of contemporary Latin American literature.
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
by Keith Devlin
Leonardo of Pisa—better known today as Fibonacci—was the first Westerner to recognize the power of the Hindu-Arabic number system (featuring the numerals 0 through 9), which offered a much simpler method of calculation than the finger reckoning and cumbersome Roman numerals used at the time. His book Liberabbaci (The book of Calculation) remade the West as the dominant force in science, technology, and large-scale international commerce. Leonardo of Pisa is best known today for discovering the Fibonacci sequence of numbers appearing in biological structures throughout nature, but despite the ubiquity of his discoveries, he has largely slipped from the pages of history. Keith Devlin, NPR’s “Math Guy,” re-creates the life and enduring legacy of this brilliant yet overlooked mathematician.
The day I bought Brooklyn Noir, I got off the subway in my neighborhood and saw police posters taped along the row of poles. I walked over to get a good look at the crude pencil sketch, to see what the man, rendered, had done. Later, I would look up the full story. The night before, at 10pm, a man in his 30s looking for a fight, got into a brawl with a random 20-year-old on the train. They got off in Brooklyn and continued the senseless fight on the platform. The guy in the sketch wrestled both himself and the stranger onto the tracks but only he made it back up alive. Amidst the horror and confusion, the perpetrator fled the scene.
The weight of this incident transformed me, stuck with me for days — and still comes to mind as I stand safely behind the yellow line. It’s something that makes you think of your own family members, either as victim or survivor. It makes you consider your daily commute. I can’t imagine an adult living in New York who hasn’t worried about the possibility of being shoved onto the tracks by an unstable person, of which there seems to be no shortage. After all, even the sanest person, at the height of rush hour, has at one point or another fantasized about pushing an inconsiderate neighbor (don’t lie, New Yorkers).
Our constant vulnerability makes the Friday night incident so chilling. Randomness. It could’ve happened to any one of us. Stepping into this scene, new book in hand, you almost have to forgive me for asking, “who needs Brooklyn Noir when you have the local news?”
With the gruesome death reverberating in my bones, I tucked the book into my bag and made my way above ground.
However gruesome the news gets, New Yorkers are a resilient bunch. The morning headlines are a constant reminder that we live in a city riddled with violent acts yet there’s a strong sense of pride. Those “I Love NY” shirts are not just for tourists. We carry on — and for most of us, we wouldn’t dream of doing so elsewhere. This attachment is fiercest at the borough level. To Manhattanites, Manhattan is the best; for those in Queens, it’s their corner that shines; same goes for The Bronx and Staten Island. Then there’s Brooklyn, the feistiest of them all — but, of course, I’m biased.
When Brooklyn-based indie publisher Akashic Books launched their city-specific noir series in 2004 it only made sense that they would begin at home.
Edited by Brooklyn-native crime writer Tim McLoughlin, Brooklyn Noir is divided into four parts: Old School, New School, Cops & Robbers, and Backwater Brooklyn. With each story taking place in a different neighborhood, the borough’s diversity is in full view. Pearl Abraham takes readers into the exclusive Hasidic community in Williamsburg — a group who still fights the bike lane that passes through their housing complexes for fear of exposed flesh — while McLoughlin’s “When All This Was Bay Ridge” is a sketch of a once-Irish neighborhood where the original population clings to its roots by way of a local bar.
From the inside looking out: Picture an embassy in a foreign country. A truly foreign country. Not a Western European ally, but a fundamentalist state perennially on the precipice of war. A fill-the-sandbags-and-wait-for-the-airstrike enclave. That was Olsen’s, home to the last of the donkeys, the white dinosaurs of Sunset Park. A jukebox filled with Kristy McColl and the Clancy Brothers, and flyers tacked to the flaking walls advertising step-dancing classes, Gaelic lessons, and the memorial run to raise money for a scholarship in the name of a recently slain cop. Within three blocks of the front door you could attend a cockfight, buy crack, or pick up a streetwalker, but in Olsen’s, it was always 1965
In “New School,” Adam Mansbach takes us to Crown Heights where Abraham Lazarus, a white, weed-slinging Rasta, sets out on a revenge mission against the unknown thug who robbed him of his pounds of drugs that morning.
Tap tap BOOM. Birds ain’t even got their warble on, and my shit’s shaking off the hinges. I don’t even bother with the peephole. It has to be Abraham Lazarus, the Jewish Rasta, playing that dub bassline on my door.
BOOM. I swung it open and Laz barged in like he was expecting to find the answer to life itself inside. A gust of Egyptian Musk oil and Nature’s Blessing dread-balm hit two seconds after he flew by: Laz stayed haloed in that shit like it was some kind of armor. He did a U-turn around my couch, ran his palm across his forehead, wiped the sweat onto his jeans, and came back to the hall.
“I just got fuckin’ robbed, bro.”
The stories in Brooklyn Noir are dark, gritty, and realistic with a “ripped from the headlines” type feel: conversations started in chatrooms taken offline, crooked cops covering their tracks, the revenge of an abused woman. It’s almost odd to call this collection is enjoyable, yet it’s one of those rarities where you think you’ve found your favorite story until you move onto the next. It’s not surprising that Akashic published two more Brooklyn-themed noir collections or that they invited McLoughlin back to edit them.
Whether you’re a born-and-raised Brooklynite, a transplant, or have never stepped foot inside this glorious corner of the world, Brooklyn Noir is an absolute must-read for noir-aficionados and the crime-curious alike.
“Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my window. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.”
2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award* winner Zoo City by South African writer Lauren Beukes is a modern day gritty, urban crime novel layered with the fantastical. If read as an adult, the restless portagonist, Zinzi December, will remind you of your angsty punk days. If read as a teen, the book will put you on course for a life of seeking energetic and imaginative stories.
Set in an alternate Johannesburg of today, Zinzi, a victim of her Former Life, lives inside what is called Zoo City: a rundown, crime-ridden ghetto for those who have become “animalled”—the colloquial term for someone symbiotically harnessed with an animal either through a crime they committed or self-imposed guilt of thinking they have—think Philip Pullman’s daemons but darker.After her brother became a casualty of her past crimes, Zinzi began toting a sloth around with her.
Finding it hard to get work as a social pariah yet strapped with debts owed to shady people, Zinzi participates in internet scams, bilking money from unsuspecting do-gooders. Aside from these illegal acts, she has a legit business cashing in on the supernatural power, the mashavi, that came along with the sloth: finding other people’s lost objects. Usually the work is mundane—a lost key in the sewer system or a family heirloom gone missing. But this last case, a wedding ring down the drain, pulls Zinzi into a twisted, and twisting, search for a missing teen pop sensation.
Songweza Radebe, the fiesty female half of brother-sister chart-topping group iJusi, has gone missing and her infamous media mogul manager, Odi Huron, wants her back, unanimalled, before the official launch of their new album, and before the tabloids catch wind of it. Zinzi is chosen for her ability and discretion but her power only works on lost objects, not missing persons. This time she’s forced to rely on old-fashioned investigative techniques. Posing as a music journalist she hits up Song’s brother, their small circle of friends, and the nightclubs she frequents for leads. As those close to her start to speak, Song’s disappearance starts to seem less like a kidnapping case.
Zinzi speeds around the city probing for answers, asking current and ex-lovers for help, digging herself deeper into debt with unsavory characters, and revealing herself as a streetwise badass as numerous fight and dodge scenes take place. Through unrelenting action, Beukes creates a strong, somewhat-flawed, always-believable heroine.
Beukes, from her days as a journalist, brings with her an incredible talent for natural dialogue and a deft use of regional slang. As a screenwriter, she has a knack for pacing. Zoo City is a fast book, banging along like the club music one hears pulsing in the background, and a reminder, if one is needed, that reading can be a whole lot of fun. Both Zoo City and Beukes are refreshing additions to the world of urban science fiction.
*The Arthur C Clarke Award is the most prestigious award for Science Fiction in Britain, presented annually for the best Science Fiction novel of the year.