Akashic Books, 288 pages, trade paperback, $15.95 (hardcover, $24.95)
Akashic’s Noir Series is known for the way it always succeeds in collecting the best noir literature from any city in the world. While doing so, and with the help of very talented guest editors who change with every book, the series has also accomplished something else: it has helped stretch the definition of noir.
“What is noir and what is not inhabits a similarly gray area,” write editors Dennis Lehane, Mary Cotton, and Jaime Clarke in the introduction. “Its definition is continually expanding from the previous generation’s agreed-upon notion that noir involves men in fedoras smoking cigarettes on street corners. Noir alludes to crime, sure, but it also evokes bleak elements, danger, tragedy, sleaze, all of which is best represented by its root French definition: black.”
Expanding the genre is precisely what Boston Noir 2: The Classics does. The fiction collected in its pages is unbelievably diverse, but every story or excerpt still makes perfect sense and boasts the aforementioned dark elements. From the violent death and drugs that come with “Mushrooms,” Lehane’s contribution to the tome, to the dizzyingly eloquent and seemingly never-ending sentences in the excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s classic “Infinite Jest,” Boston Noir 2 has something for everyone and shines a light into crime fiction’s darkest corners.
The first part of the book, titled “Broken Families,” starts things off with Chuck Hogan’s “The Marriage Privilege,” a narrative about lies, revenge, and intellectual prowess. Miles Bard Jr. is a typical young man born into a rich family. When he suddenly finds himself facing charges of motor vehicle homicide and operating under the influence, he concocts a devious plan to stay out of jail. He pulls it off — but his victim, the woman whose brother he killed and whom he put in a wheelchair, also has a few secret agendas of her own.
Robert B. Parker’s “Surrogate” is the tale that most closely resembles the “fedora-and-cigarettes” noir mentioned in the introduction. This one is simple and very good: a narrative about a raped woman who knows her ex made it all happen and craves revenge. A violent, fun, dark read.
“Criminal Minds,” the second portion of the collection, contains Lehane’s story, which brings death to the forefront with the clarity and nonchalance that have made Lehane’s work popular all across the globe. Surprisingly, the section also boasts a second memorable highlight, Linda Barnes’ “Lucky Penny,” which mixes sleuth antics, a twisted sense of humor, and a very entertaining character/narrator.
The book closes with “Voyeurs & Outsiders,” the segment that truly pushes the envelope when it comes to expanding the genre’s boundaries. The first must-read is Jason Brown’s “Driving the Heart,” a tale of two men on a race to deliver a heart and save someone’s life. Full of philosophy and slightly reminiscent of Joe Connelly’s neo-noir classic Bringing Out the Dead, this one is definitely not for those who can’t handle a good dose of grief.
The second outstanding story is George Harrar’s “The 5:22,” a narrative that walks the line between a Kafkaesque study of routines and a love story between two people who have never actually met.
Besides the stories mentioned above, Boston Noir 2 also brings to the table a story about the occult from Joyce Carol Oates (no, seriously), and excerpts of larger works by Barbara Neely, Kenneth Abel, and David Foster Wallace.
Boston is a very diverse city, and Boston Noir 2 manages to offer readers a satisfying taste of some of the best classic noir literature the metropolis has to offer. Just like all previous books in this series from Akashic Books, this one is highly recommended.