Contrary to Star Trek II (or Quentin Tarantino), it was not the Klingons who came up with the saying “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Try Shakespeare, who wrote the line in Hamlet some 400-plus years ago. It’s funny how the best advice can seem timeless. And it’s downright depressing when no one actually listens to it, especially editors of story collections.
Revenge is the third Canadian noir mystery anthology of short stories from Toronto’s Insomniac Press in as many years edited by Kerry J. Schooley and Peter Sellers, the latter of whom won a 2001 Ellery Queen Readers Award. (This volume follows Iced and Hard Boiled Love.) On the surface, this anthology is a great idea: It shows the world that people from neighborly, liberal Canada actually can produce gritty pulp fiction. This is something that’s generally overlooked within the country’s own borders despite the fact that it, too, has produced serial killers like Clifford Olson and Paul Bernardo. Unfortunately, a lot of the fiction contained within doesn’t exactly raise the bar on excellence, let alone mediocrity, in the supposedly page-turning realm of dime-store detective novels.
Part of the problem is the theme itself. Many genre magazines today won’t even look at stories featuring revenge as the primary plot element because it is simply such a worn out means of injecting character motivation into a story. And it’s boring for the reader to boot. Who wants to read a story about an anti-hero whose story begins and ends with a single act of selfishness — unless, of course, that anti-hero has got a really compelling story to tell?
Well, in this anthology, a good number of the 12 stories included merely riff on the idea that revenge is necessary due to some kind of failure in the justice system. Zzzzz. Jean Rae Baxter’s opener “A Wanton Disregard” charts this course in a story about a woman who takes the law into her own hands after a careless cellphone-gabbing driver accidentally mows down her husband and son on a busy city street. The story has promise — you can’t help but feel sympathy for the main character — but is problematic. That’s not to speak of the fact that the film 21 Grams recently covered some very similar territory.
I could go on, but one’s time might be better spent pointing to one of the (very) few glimmers of gold in this collection. Not much biographical information is given in regards to the late Hugh Garner’s story “Hunky,” except that it originated from a CBC Radio teleplay (probably going back to, I would assume, the 1950s or ’60s). Even though “Hunky” is a dated Steinbeck-esque story of tobacco farmers going up against their bosses, Garner is one of the few writers in this collection who seems to be able to actually invoke compassion in his characters, if not a real sense of noir-ish grit and foreboding in his work. This story made me want to head to the library to see what else this seemingly overlooked Canadian writer might have written, which is what a good anthology would ordinarily do in spades.
However, this anthology series really seems to exist almost exclusively as a compilation of not only the editor’s work but that of their friends. In Revenge, Sellers contributes a rather lackluster story with lame dialogue (“Bush Fever”) about a young oilrig worker who dies accidentally … or did he? Besides publishing his own work, Sellers also included two stories in this collection that had been originally published in Cold Blood, a similar anthology of Canadian noir fiction from the ’90s. Sellers co-edited that anthology series, which also had a Best Of compilation published in 1998. Hmmm. Let’s see. That’d be, what, up to three trips from the same well? And if that weren’t all, there’s also a story by someone named John Swan in this collection. If you do a little Internet sleuthing, it turns out that John Swan is merely the pen name for Kerry J. Schooley, the other editor of this anthology!
Now, it’s one thing to be an editor of a short story collection and include your own work — generally looked upon as a bad thing, since it suggests the only reason the book is coming out is because it’s the only place the editor(s) could get his or her short stories published. It’s entirely another thing, however, to be an editor who includes his or her own work under a pseudonym. It seems a bit dishonest, like something that was meant to throw readers away from the stench of nepotism clogging up this particular book.
In any event, Schooley and Sellers can’t outfox this eagle-eyed PI. Start going through the rest of the author bios, and it turns out that Baxter was published in Hard Boiled Love, that James Powell was published in Hard Boiled Love, that Vern Smith was published in Iced and Hard Boiled Love. By the time you’re finished counting, almost two-thirds of this book will have came from the editors or people the editors have previously published in recent and not-so-recent collections. It makes you wonder: Has Canadian publishing become so desperate that whom you chum around with is a better arbiter of quality than, well, quality?
Whatever. For a collection that focuses so squarely on getting “an eye for an eye,” there’s a surprisingly lack of payback for the reader. This Revenge isn’t a cold dish. It’s a warmed-over concoction micro-waved by nepotism. And it only proves one thing: maybe there’s something to be said about turning the other cheek after all.