Monday, June 21, 2010

Night in the city: Noir goes local in short-story collections

Book review by Daniel Olivas

If you're a fan of crime fiction, then there is no better publisher to turn to than Akashic Books and its award-winning noir series of paperback anthologies tied to specific cities or regions.

Two of my favorites are Mexico City Noir (edited by Paco Ignacio Taibo II) and Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics (edited by Denise Hamilton), both priced at $15.95.

In Mexico City Noir, Taibo brings together a dozen stories that involve grisly, though sometimes funny, tales of mayhem, drugs and political dirty tricks.

His roster of talent is Eugenio Aguirre, Eduardo Antonia Parra, Bernardo Fernández, îscar de la Borbolla, Rolo Diez, Victor Luis González, F.G. Haghenbeck, Juan Hernández Luna, Myriam Laurini, Eduardo Monteverde and Julia Rodríguez. (Taibo also includes "The Corner," one of his own rather wry stories concerning a crime writer.)

The stories were translated into English by Achy Obejas, the acclaimed novelist of Ruins and Days of Awe. The importance of a talented translator can never be overemphasized: Obejas captures all the nuance, mystery and suspense one would expect from noir.

Juan Hernández Luna's "Bang!" begins: "I'm standing in front of the dark barrel of a gun, which is held by a guy who is watching me carefully and gesturing unsympathetically. I try to move but the guy makes a sign indicating not to or he'll have to shoot."

But the story swerves and turns in on itself as the narrator mocks not only his situation, but also the tropes of classic noir: "Dialogue. Right now there should be dialogue. Threatening phrases that indicate who has the power, and although there's a gun aimed at me, every word suggests I'm the one with the ace up his sleeve."

The story takes several turns until it ends in an existential meditation on a life that is both "bountiful and idiotic."

In the 15 tales collected by Denise Hamilton for Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics, we enjoy a guided tour of urban crime in a city that some would call "ground zero" for pulp fiction.

This is the second Akashic collection to cover the City of Angels; the best-selling and award-winning 2007 anthology was also edited by Hamilton. This time out, she covers the city's dark corners with stories by Raymond Chandler, Paul Cain, James Ellroy, Leigh Brackett, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Ross MacDonald, Walter Mosley, Naomi Hirahara, Margaret Millar, Joseph Hansen, William Campbell Gault, Jervey Tervalon, Kate Braverman and Yxta Maya Murray.

Hamilton reflects the great diversity of L.A.'s population by including stories with characters who live (and sometimes die) in the many ethnic communities that make up the city. In Yxta Maya Murray's "Lucía" (excerpted from her enormously successful 1997 novel, Locas), we visit the violent lives of female gang members in Echo Park, where crime is the child of desperation and sounds like this: "Nothing's keeping this chola down. I'm the only woman or man in this place, the only one in Echo Park, who can scratch on up to the top and stay there."

Mexico City Noir and Los Angeles Noir 2" offer nothing short of great entertainment for lovers of crime fiction.

Go grab copies of your own. Or else.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times. If you missed Michael Sedano's La Bloga review of Mexico City Noir, go here.]

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