David Hale Smith, Ed., Dallas Noir
2013, 288 pages, paperback, $16
Having lived in the Dallas area for much of my adolescence, I was immediately intrigued by the promise of Akashic Books’ new anthology Dallas Noir. Like previous volumes of the expansive Noir series, an array of authors—some more noteworthy than others—attempt to capture the atmosphere of a title locale and expose its darker side, the danger and sordid goings-on that less-adventurous residents hope to avoid in everyday life. Ironically, some of the best stories in Dallas Noir are those in which everyday Dallas life becomes more dangerous than expected.
Editor David Hale Smith’s introduction paints Dallas as the “ultimate noir town,” marred forever by the assassination of JFK in November 1963 and corrupted by criminal bankers and shady land deals. Each story takes place in a specific Dallas neighborhood, and for those unfamiliar with the city, a set of maps at the front of the book can help you keep track of the treacherous geography. Readers need not have visited Dallas firsthand to appreciate this anthology, but there is a certain pleasure in recognizing street names and landmarks, more so when you get to peer into the seedier city underneath them. Smith also divides the book into three parts—Cowboys, Rangers, and Mavericks—a thematic concept which would have been cooler if these weren’t the names of the city’s professional sports teams.
“Part I: Cowboys” contains six stories and explores topics such as mixed-culture family tensions and local politics, fear and urban decline, and in more than one instance, the price of revenge. The book opens with Matt Bondurant’s “Hole-man,” in which suburban worries about a neighbor’s pool, mosquitoes, and the West Nile virus lead into a brush with lawless roofers and the threat of real harm. In contrast, Ben Fountain’s “The Realtor” never feels truly dangerous but reveals the subtlety of fraud and feminine wiles in the Dallas real estate game. His main character’s self-assessment sums up the amoral landscape which most of Dallas Noir’s characters roam:
The more you had, the more you were allowed to take, apparently, and if Brice got what he wanted with virtually no strings attached, it was their own fault, they offered. There were times when his behavior was downright shitty. He didn’t necessarily admire every aspect of the person he’d become, but he was experimenting, pushing boundaries.
“Part II: Rangers” takes a darker turn toward five stories of Dallas’s nightlife and various criminal behaviors. Among these are Merritt Pierce’s “The Private Room,” a story about the degrading work of a high-end waitress and her self-destructive activities between shifts as well as “Night Work” by Clay Reynolds, which consists of a series of episodes following the hazards and temptations of late-night store clerks in dicey neighborhoods. We even get a quintessential noir detective with a Texas twist, as Captain Jeremiah Spur tracks a murderer in James Hime’s “Like Kissing Your Sister.”
“Part III: Mavericks” offers six somewhat unexpected noir stories. “Coincidences Can Kill You” by Kathleen Kent transplants a lesbian police detective from Brooklyn to Texas, and she illustrates her inevitable cultural shock on the job:
I had worked a lot of strange crimes in New York. A dead naked guy in clown makeup, for one. But usually the trail of clues followed the physics of the known universe, and though all the pieces may not fit together right away, they were somehow linked…You don’t get to an urban boat dock on a drug bust and find a Civil War general. Unless you’re in Texas.
Just as unexpected, David Haynes’s “Big Things Happen Here” focuses on the trauma and aftermath of witnessing an armed abduction while “The Stickup Girl” by Harry Hunsicker offers a first-person account of a former stripper and self-proclaimed “great-great-grandniece of Bonnie Parker. You know, Bonnie and Clyde?” The anthology’s final story, Jonathan Woods’s “Swingers Anonymous,” is—as it turns out—exactly what it sounds like, except with murder and drug money on the line.
Even though some of Dallas Noir’s authors aim for pulpier fiction over more substantive literary goals, a book with “noir” in the title invites a measure of pulp. Yet Dallas Noir often bypasses true detectives and gritty crime drama for the unsung victims and fringe players of such noir staples, and I suspect only the most hardboiled noir fans will see this as a bait-and-switch. The best stories in Dallas Noir deliver what I like most about the genre: suspense, realism, and characters who face danger and isolation in a world where trust and safety are often elusive, if not an illusion.