Thursday, October 08, 2015

Chicago Noir: The Classics

Chicago Noir: The Classics is my ninth experience with the wonderful Akashic Books series of noir short stories since I first discovered them several years ago.  In addition to this Chicago collection, I have enjoyed the books set in Manila, Belfast, Long Island, Boston, Mexico City, the Lone Star state of Texas, Providence, and one set entirely inside prisons.  I was particularly interested in getting my hands on Chicago Noir because that city’s reputation for political corruptness is the first thing that many people think of when they hear the word “Chicago.”  Even the book’s editor, Joe Meno, stressed that reputation in his introductory comments:

            “Only in Chicago do instituted color lines offer generation after generation of poverty and violence, only in Chicago do the majority of recent governors do prison time, only in Chicago do the dead actually vote twice.  With its public record of bribery, cronyism, and fraud, this is a metropolis so deeply divided – by race, ethnicity, and class – that sociologists had to develop a new term to describe this unfortunate bifurcation.  As Nelson Algren best put it, Chicago is and has always been a ‘city on the make.”’

But all that said, the stories in Chicago Noir seem to stretch the definition of “noir” to a greater degree than any of the other noir collections I’m familiar with.  Granted, these stories are labeled as “The Classics,” and some of them are decades old, but I found myself wondering several times whether they really fit in this particular collection. 

There is, for instance, a wonderful story from 1945 by Richard Wright called “The Man Who Went to Chicago.”  While this is one of my two favorite stories from the entire collection, I struggle to fit it within the confines of my personal definition of the term “noir.”  It takes place entirely within a Chicago Medical District research lab, and the only crimes committed are an aborted knife fight that causes damage to the lab, and the workers’ decision to cover up the fact that the resulting damage ruined the research studies being conducted there.  It is “dark” only in the sense that it exposes the horrible racial discrimination so common to those times.

Now, my other favorite story from Chicago Noir: The Classics leaves no room to doubt that it belongs in any collection of noir fiction.  This one is called “I’ll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen,” and it was written by Fredric Brown way back in 1948.  The story is brutal, has a couple of unforgettably duplicitous characters in it, and the most shocking ending of any story in the entire collection.  It is only the second time I have read Fredric Brown and it is enough to make me search for more of his work.

As in most short story collections, the stories in Chicago Noir: The Classics are a bit uneven.  Perhaps that is purposeful and done in hope that there is something in the collection that will appeal to everyone who picks it up.  If so, that might be a legitimate reason for packaging them together.  But a couple of stories were so formulaic that I wished I had not bothered with them at all.  It’s as if they were written to “spec” even though they were from 1995 and 2009.  But overall, this is a worthy addition to the Akashic Books noir series, and I am happy to add it to my collection.

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