Detroit Noir
reviewed by Connor Coyne

Olsen, E.J., and John C. Hocking (eds.) Detroit Noir. New York: Akashic Books, 2007. $15.95.

Detroit Noir, published in 2007, fully embodies the legacy of its Akashic Noir predecessors, which is to say it’s a real mixed bag.  Authors unknown and well-known, stylings straightforward and avant-garde, connect-the-dots hardboiled plots and romantic anti-noir, and writing that is by turns awesome and atrocious, these collections are bewildering in their (intentional?) variability. With several dozen titles, the series is as ambitious as it is haphazard, taking advantage of a built-in market of readers who want to get elbow deep in the muck and mud of their hometowns.

Of course, one truism of noir fiction is that it always inhabits a noir universe.  Among the violence, filth, and depradation of noir, there are no legitimate havens.  Corruption is pervasive.  We all participate in an economy of decay. As such, any town could be a setting for a noir anthology.  One could compile an “Easthampton Noir” or an “Schaumburg Noir” (and who knows, these may be waiting in the docks).

At the same time, there are plenty of us who feel that the rust belt in general, and Detroit in particular, has long-since earned its right to inclusion among the great noir settings.  Cities with a history of prosperity amidst present poverty and ruination seem to conspicuously embody the fundamental wounds of the noir landscape.  If noir inhabits a stylized, symbolic world, rust belt realities neatly coincide with noir fictions and inventions.  Readers have every right to high expectations for a collection of noir short stories set in Detroit.

I can’t enthusiastically say such standards will be met. For starters, not all of the stories here are noir.  I’m not trying to apply some hipstery purity test, but noir is noir and Roger Johnson’s “Hey Love” is not. It is a sentimental diatribe on Detroit music with no crimes, no scars, no victims, no darkness.  Other stories, such as Craig Bernier’s “Migration” are deep-steeped in Detroit, but they’re romantic. They express uncompromised hope.  They rise above the muck and the mud without thrashing and struggle.  Not only is redemption available, but it isn’t even particularly difficult. We can be as generous as we like in our definition of “noir,” but if the term encompasses any story featuring an abandoned building, we might as well just call this anthology Detroit.

Ah, but that too poses some problems.  Some of these Detroit stories just don’t seem all that Detroitey.  Some authors employ modestly original descriptions of abandoned houses and urban decay.  Others rattle through lists of landmarks: the Fox, the Ren Cen, Comerica Park. These are legitimate tactics, but they aren’t sufficient.  Cities are nuanced creatures, and with so many cities on Earth (many with their share of blight and discord) it takes a delicate touch to say: this place, right here, and nowhere else.

And that is the downside to this collection: If you select a story at random from Detroit Noir there is no assurance that you’re going to be reading about Detroit, or noir, at all.  The anthology is all over the map.

But eclecticism swings the other way as well.  There are some powerful pieces here.  As much as I couldn’t place “Migration” as any stripe of noir, it was a pleasure to read, full of shadowed, empty spaces drifting through a blizzard of desolation. Melissa Preddy brings a sleuther that subtly gravitates toward darkness without ever actually naming the catalysts for its crimes.  While I don’t know how one would classify Joyce Carol Oates’ “Panic” (with Oates does it even matter?) the story is both mesmerizing and gently brutal. And Dorene O’Brien renders Corktown with flair, quietly assembling a house-of-cards page-by-page before sweeping everything away in one deft motion.

A solid majority of the stories here are worth reading and enjoying.

I’d even call one of them, Megan Abbott’s “Our Eyes Couldn’t Stop Opening” one of the most evocative, powerful short stories I’ve ever read.  Flirting with the lines of separation — roads, races, zip codes — that have been shorthand for Detroit’s ills for decades — that one might even call a reliable code for the meaning behind all that urban decay — the enigmatic character Keri plumbs the highways and alleys of the East Side. Before she arrives at an ending that is somehow both inevitable and unexpected, she discovers a terrible  beauty permanently obscured by “this hard current of nastiness and dirtiness and badness, sweaty, gun-oil, mattress-spring coil throbbing, stains spreading.”

Passages like this illuminate the true potential of the Akashic Noir series.  Abbott’s piece is uncompromisingly Detroit, and unapologetically noir.


 

Connor Coyne is author of the novels Hungry Rats and Shattering Glass. He has lived in Chicago and New York City, but has moved back to Flint, Michigan because he couldn’t resist the siren song of the Rust Belt.