At long last, walks on this city's dark side
edited by Carlin Romano
Akashic Books. 300 pp.
reviewed by Edward Pettit
Since 2004, Akashic Books has been publishing a noir series, each volume a collection of short stories set in a particular city or distinct locality.
Brooklyn Noir started it all, followed by 41 more titles such as Los Angeles Noir and Dublin Noir. All of the stories are new. You won't find any Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, although Akashic has added a few volumes of classic noir fiction, including these authors.
Philadelphia, to the chagrin of the many mystery and crime novelists who write in this city, has long been overlooked in favor of such noir hotbeds as Portland, Toronto, and the Twin Cities.
Philadelphia Noir, edited by Carlin Romano, critic-at-large for the Chronicle of Higher Education and former Inquirer book critic, contains stories by 15 writers, including Romano, all set within (or very near) the borders of the Quaker City.
A place that has long struggled with homogeneity, Philadelphia has remained a city of neighborhoods, and the stories here aptly reflect that ethos. Each of the 15 tales is set in a different neighborhood. We read about characters in South Philly, Strawberry Mansion, East Falls, Fishtown, Frankford, and Chestnut Hill. And as in all good noir fiction, all the characters are in some way stuck in a situation that looks bleak and will only get bleaker.
Noir is a notoriously tough term to define. Critics and readers of crime fiction have long battled over its use and misuse. Is it a genre or a sub-genre? Does crime have to be involved? Is it a set of conventions simply used to convey effect, or is it something that encompasses a worldview?
The simplest way I can define noir is to say it deals with the dark places that other fiction tends to avoid. While some crime (and horror) fiction presents characters with dark hearts going down dark streets, in noir we see the things that happen in the shadows of those already dark streets. Noir is about the darkest places.
In Keith Gilman's story "Devil's Pocket," a worn-out former cop must face the sordid realities of the continual decay of his Grays Ferry neighborhood. After all the years he spent arresting the bad guys, he now must live alongside them, wondering why life never gets better.
In Halimah Marcus' "Swimming," a psychotherapist in Narberth must deal not only with the secrets of his own past, but how one of his patients is now under threat from those same sins. There's even a femme fatale to make things interesting.
Other stories deal with kidnapping, secret clubs for the rich, grifters, and buried bodies coming to light again. Dennis Tafoya's excellent "Above the Imperial," about the small-time life of a small-time stoner thief, and Jim Zervano's "Your Brother, Who Loves You" with its clever title playing on the meaning of Philadelphia are both excellent.
Romano has divided the book into four sections - "City of Bursts," "The City of Otherly Love," "The Faker City," and "Those Who Forget the Past. . . ." The stories within each are thematically linked, although I found those in the first section to be a bit of a hodgepodge. It's the last section with stories set in Philadelphia's past that for me had the most punch.
As Romano notes in his introduction, for many people Philadelphia will always be the city of the Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell, and all that good-government American myth. But Philadelphia is also the birthplace of the dark side of the American Experiment. While Washington and Adams and Jefferson were coming to grips with our new democracy, novelist Charles Brockden Brown was penning tales rife with ax murderers and con men set in and around Philadelphia.
This literary tradition in the city continued throughout the 19th century with such writers of lurid tales as Edgar Allan Poe and George Lippard. These sensational, gothic, horrific tales are the seeds from which noir is born in the 20th century.
I am very surprised that Romano makes no mention of Philly writer David Goodis in his introduction. If Chandler and Hammett are the kings of private eye, hard-boiled pulp, Goodis is certainly the crown prince of noir, churning out a dozen or so novels mostly set in his hometown that have been described as one long suicide note. Goodis' ghost haunts Philadelphia Noir, especially in the last group of stories set in the city's chaotic past.
Duane Swierczynski in "Lonergan's Girl" (the title itself a nod to Goodis' novel Cassidy's Girl), Cordelia Frances Biddle's "Reality," Gerald Kolpan's "Ratcatcher," and Cary Holladay's "Ghost Walk" all skillfully bring this collection home to its birthright. These are dark characters operating within a world of limited options, who, when faced with opportunities, make choices that sometimes have dire consequences.
This is the world of David Goodis. In the stories that wrap up this collection, characters not only need to face their own mistakes, but the stories themselves confront the strange noir history of the Quaker City, where the ghosts of our founding fathers walk alongside the ghosts of our criminals.
It's about time Akashic added Philadelphia to its noir universe. Goodis would be proud.