Akashic Books is an independent Brooklyn-based small publisher which, beginning in 2004, has published over 50 paperback books of noir stories. Each of the books is set in a different place and with a small number of exceptions for classical stories, each consists of never-before published works. Most of the books are set in large American cities, but the series has expanded to include titles such as "Indian country noir" and noir set in foreign locations.
Several things prompted me to read this volume of Philadelphia stories, "Philadelphia Noir" (2010) edited by Carlin Romano. I attended law school in Philadelphia many years ago and remember exploring many areas of the city. Much more recently, I discovered the noir novels of David Goodis, many of which are set in some of the Philadelphia neighborhoods described in this volume. Goodis' most famous novel, "Down There", set in Philadelphia is available in a Library of America compilation of noir writing Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s: The Killer Inside Me / The Talented Mr. Ripley / Pick-up / Down There / The Real Cool Killers (Library of America) (Vol 2) while a second LOA volume includes an additional five Goodis novels, three of which are set in Philadelphia. David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America) Finally, I read a recent book by editor Carlin Romano on the nature of intellectual life in the United States. America the Philosophical (Vintage) Romano opposes the attempts of many to deny the intellectual achievement and potentiality of American life. Among many other things, his book attempts to soften the claimed distinctions between "low-brow", "middle-brow" and "high-brow" culture in American life. His work as the editor of a volume of noir stories seems a movement in that direction.
In a short introduction to the anthology, Romano observes that Philadelphia is often regarded as a nondescript, dull city, with epithets such as "Filthyadelphia" and the old W.C. Fields punchline, "second prize, two weeks in Philadelphia". He points out Philadelphia's long history, including its grime, grit, diversity, and violence. In Philadelphia, Romano states, "we just live our lives" and these varied lives are reflected in the stories.
The book itself consists of 15 stories, each of which is by a different author (including a story by Romano) and each of which describes a different Philadelphia community. The settings range from neighborhoods consisting of wealthy, educated residents to poor, economically depressed areas. There is frequent interaction among individuals of different status. The criminal activity described ranges from gangs, violent murder, and drugs to more subtle forms of crime. Some of the authors included publish frequently while others are little known.
The sense of place is the most critical element of noir writing, and the stories capture the streets, businesses, homes and people of Philadelphia neighborhoods. The individual stories are mixed. A small number suffer from cumbersome or from routine plotting. A few of the stories show little of the elements of noir -- the genre is difficult to pin down precisely. But the volume on the whole has a noir character and is effective in offering new writing about Philadelphia. The stories are not on the level of a master of the genre such as David Goodis. I was surprised, in fact, that Goodis is not so much as mentioned in the volume.
The volume is divided into four groups of loosely related stories. In the first group,"City of Bursts" focusing on street violence, I enjoyed Keith Gilman's "Devil's Pocket" set in the Gray's Ferry neighborhood. Dennis Tafoya's "Above the Imperial" about a young petty criminal who finds love in the neighborhood of Gray's Ferry was the highlight of the second group, "City of Otherly Love". Diane Ayres' "Seeing Nothing" offers a vignette of urban life in the third group, "The Faker City". In the final group, the stories have historical settings. Noir writer Duane Swierczynski's "Longeran's Girl" is a poignant story set in 1924 on the newly-opened El. It is the work in the collection which reminded me most of Goodis.
I enjoyed this volume of the Akashic Noir series set in a city in which I once lived and walked. The book will appeal to readers of urban noir with a connection to Philadelphia.
Dec 30, 2010
Full disclousure: I'm a native.
One of the joys of travel is later revisiting a far away place in a book. When one has a whole book of short stories all set in one's home town, the ! recognition factor naturally runs high. But this geographical 'noir' series has always delivered, even if one has never been to the locale. Carlin Romano has put together a first rate collection; some tales use Philadelphia, some don't. All deliver fine writing in a number of modes. Most readers should fine everything enjoyable, and many pieces extra worthy.
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