By Sarah Hayes, A&E Editor
“St. Louis Noir” is the latest in a series of geography-centric fiction anthologies by Akashic Books, all highlighting the noir genre in various locations. This particular volume is edited by Scott Phillips, author of the popular 2000 novel “The Ice Havest,” and features work by local authors such as poet Michael Castro and political activist Umar Lee.
There are a lot of layers of St. Louis life for authors to pull from to fuel their stories’ emotional turbulence: economic disparities, racism and segregation, urban decay, failing school systems, police brutality, environmental disaster zones, and so forth. But at the heart of nearly every story in “St. Louis Noir” is someone who makes mistakes and keeps making mistakes long after any sensible person would have stopped and re-evaluated their life decisions. Some stories are like artful train wrecks, in which readers can barely look away before seeing what disastrous turn the protagonist’s life takes.
One problem present with some of the stories in “St. Louis Noir” is that little ties them down specifically to any given setting. “Attrition” by Calvin Wilson, depicts a journalist who gets sick of the new A&E editor and decides to take care of her, and reads like it could have taken place in any newsroom in the country. Same with “A Paler Shade Of Death” by Laura Benedict, set in Glendale, although it is still a riveting psychological study of a woman who has lost everything and attempts to rebuild her life in a new neighborhood. Scrub off the few location-specific markers that they have and you could reset them in any small town you please.
Meanwhile, “A St. Louis Christmas” by Umar Lee tries its best to be a real Arch City noir story but falls short on several fronts. Its depiction of North County rings hollow in places, and the idea that one could drive from Florissant to the Jamestown Mall in five minutes or less boggles the mind. It has good action in a story about white trash drug runners crossing paths with an interfaith and interracial anti-drug vigilante duo, but it tries so hard to be hardcore and dark that it becomes too much.
Some of the strongest stories, ironically enough, take place outside St. Louis proper. “One Little Goddamn Thing” by editor Phillips shifts the focus to Sauget, Illinois, as its main character Tony has just gotten out of prison and is now checking up on his no-good brother-in-law’s activities. Being locked away for almost 30 years means that Tony gives us a much different perspective of St. Louis and the surrounding areas than any other character in this volume. It is almost refreshing to walk through seemingly familiar streets in the shoes of someone who has not walked those streets for nearly three decades. It is also just a really damn good story, tightly plotted with a nice twist at the end.
Another highlight of the book is “Fool’s Luck” by LaVelle Wilkins-Chinn, a multi-generational story of love, greed, and gold digging set in the Central West End. It oozes humor and charm through its colorful cast of messed-up, no-nonsense characters, and the words just beg to be read aloud to a captive audience. It certainly is not a nice story, but once you meet Carla and see how she turns on poor Unk, you will not mind a bit what happens to her in the end. You will, however, be much more appreciative of the patchwork of pavement that is Kingshighway.
Like many anthologies, “St. Louis Noir” is a mixed bag of good and bad, or at least stories that succeed more than others. With 14 different authors representing 14 different regions, not everyone’s vision of their setting will jive with someone else’s, especially if that someone else lives in said region. But it still manages to be a solid, inviting read into the darker side of St. Louis life.