[15 November 2009]
Boston is a city that long reveled in its underdog status; its citizens wore their disappointment like a badge, and now struggle with the embarrassment and guilt of being spoiled with prosperity and comfort. In the place of ugly, oppressive elevated freeways, they find lush greenways. Where once stood abandoned, burned out buildings now sit luxury condominiums and haute eateries. Sports teams who dashed hopes time and time again are now laden with trophies, their celebratory parades considered quotidian. It’s a transformation that Dennis Lehane, accomplished crime novelist and the editor of Boston Noir, says has made the city a less interesting place to live. “As the city continues to lose its old-school parochialism and overt immigrant tribalism,” he writes in a brief introduction, “it’s also losing a lot of its character.”
It’s a sentiment that’s undoubtedly true, but blithely elides the real cost of such local color and character. From the boring, beige present, it’s dangerously easy to romanticize the city’s history as one of chummy, close-knit neighborhoods and gritty excitement while casually forgetting the racial animus, crime, corruption, and economic hardship that bound that old world together. Such misplaced nostalgia also glosses over the problems that still exist in the city, in the neighborhoods that gentrification and economic progress have overlooked, particularly Roxbury, Mattapan, and western Dorchester, whose residents would surely prefer their environs had a little less character and a little more security. What makes for a good story does not always make for a good city.
Boston Noir, thankfully, is searching for the former rather than the latter, and Lehane has selected 11 short stories that hope to capture the dark thrill and impish personality of his native city. The volume is published by Akashic Books, who have endeavored to release similarly themed compilations of crime and noir fiction for dozens of cities, from Detroit to Dublin, Moscow to Mumbai. As a patchwork of different voices and perspectives, Boston Noir is unsurprisingly uneven, but the diversity of thought and rapidly-shifting tone are enough to keep a reader interested. Though the writers are all intimately familiar with their setting, they’re not immune from lazy clichés. References to the infamous Boston accent are frequent and often labored, and it seems that virtually everyone in South Boston grew up on L Street. Still, some can tease out the subtleties and nuances of Boston living that true natives will recognize and appreciate, and these special moments can be revealing and powerful.
Brendan DuBois’ “The Dark Island” sticks closely to the noir paradigm and scores the collection’s biggest hit, with a deft sense of true character and a compelling plot that embraces the genre’s dark side. Its focus is Billy Sullivan, a Scollay Square PI in post-war Boston who leads a teary, troubled woman on a twilight cruise of the Boston Harbor Islands in search of what she claims are the cherished mementos of a departed soldier boyfriend. In just a few pages, DuBois populates his city with not just an array of interesting characters, but also interesting relationships. He gives the impression that the reader is joining Sullivan’s world already in progress, and that they’re being treated to just a sliver of a larger life in which this episode is but a brief segment. Good noir like DuBois’ story abhors exposition and thrives in implications, blossoming in the negative space that exists between the shards of information.
Dana Cameron’s “Femme Sole” is another success, reaching back into the city’s colonial past to find a rich noir. Her protagonist, Anna Hoyt, is a North End tavern owner in the year 1795, struggling to maintain her independence while under siege from an abusive husband and local racketeers who do not recognize her rights on account of her gender. Cameron’s prose is well tailored and wastes no time bringing Anna to life. The strength and fullness of Anna’s character makes it easy to sympathize and identify with her, to feel invested in her fate.
The story stands in stark contrast to Lynne Heitman’s “Exit Interview”, which probes similar issues in modern times, yet has far less to say. It too revolves around a female protagonist, Sloan, marginalized by her male peers because of her gender. Boxed out of a big promotion at her investment firm by a backroom boy’s club, Sloan is pushed over the edge and lashes out violently at those who wronged her. Compared to the very intricate “Femme Sole”, “Exit Interview” is woefully blunt and inadequate, a shallow tale that uses violence to distract from a lack of plot or purpose. It also has very little to do with Boston, making it an odd choice as the lead story of Boston Noir. The few references to the city are unconvincing and strangely isolated, as if they were shoehorned into an existing story. The stale, high-rise office Sloan commandeers could just as easily be on Wall Street or in the financial district of any medium-sized city.
Special note should also be made of Don Lee’s Cambridge-based “The Oriental Hair Poets”, a story of the intense rivalry between two Asian-American poetesses that is begging for further exploration, Russ Aborn’s “Turn Speed”, whose North Quincy bank robbers capture the rough-edged humor of the area pitch perfectly, and John Dufresne’s “The Cross-Eyed Bear”, a difficult portrayal of a Catholic priest at war with demons both internal and external.
Boston Noir is a valiant attempt to shed light on the darker, less traveled corners of the city, the ones that the Freedom Trail doesn’t delve into and tourists rarely see. It’s not perfect, occasionally impressive, at times insincere, and very proud of its quirks and foibles. In those ways, it’s a lot like the city it aims to depict.