Akashic Books, 207 Pages
by Matthew Caron
Boston Noir is the most recent entry in the expansive Akashic Noir Series, which anthologizes regional crime fiction by bundling together short works from best-selling authors with lesser-knowns and setting each story in a different neighborhood, helpfully plotted out on a map in the opening pages. Akashic Noir has so far covered points from Los Angeles to Wall Street to Trinidad with future editions dedicated to locales as diverse as Lagos and Orange County on the way. Beyond the opportunity to discover obscure writers or enjoy a short fiction by a popular novelist, the great virtue of this organized campaign of underbelly tourism is the revelation of characters and locales that would be overlooked by either journalism or straight fiction. Every great place ought to have one.
The Boston entry in this series is edited by Dennis Lehane, the best-selling author of Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone Baby Gone all of which have been adapted into big Hollywood movies. Lehane has a knack for nitty-gritty working class drama that translates well to the screen, distinguished by a powerful talent for characterization and an ear for his hometown’s vernacular.
Lehane’s Boston is slightly provincial, populated mainly by characters of Irish extraction who’ve been living in the same neighborhood for their whole lives, know their priest, worship the Pats and the Sox and are never far from a bar where shady things happen. There’s several helpings of this classic local flavor on offer here if you crave more of it. Lehane the author provides an excellent entry concerning a stray dog and a basement safe in Dorchester, where neighborhood knuckleheads dispense with wicked and pissa and invoke the Pats just like you knew they would. Fortunately, Lehane the editor leavens the expected with a handful of surprising entries devoted to corners and characters that aren’t so obvious.
Lehane starts things off with one such surprise, the taught hostage thriller “Exit Interview” by Lynne Heitman, which is set in a mirrored skyscraper where a woman’s collision with the glass ceiling results in a body count. Over in Cambridge, Don Lee’s “The Oriental Hair Poets” delivers an old-fashioned gumshoe yarn with a slight tang of Murakami, following a Hmong detective on the case of a long-haired poet who may or may not be wasting thousands of gallons of water to spite her landlord. In black Roxbury, we are treated to Itaberi Njari’s “The Collar”, which happens to be the most electric and modern entry in the book. Njari’s story follows Nina, an overburdened fourth grade teacher trying to figure out whether or not her current boyfriend is stupid enough to have slapped a woman in an argument over a minor fender bender. “The Collar” is also a standout for the fact that its characters seem at ease in their surroundings rather than tortured. It’s the story set in the least glamorous neighborhood, yet it’s also the one that presents the most generous image of Boston and the people who live there.
All in all, Lehane and Akashic have compiled a solid collection of short noir that is a pissa if not a wicked pissa as the neighborhood knuckleheads might say.