I have to make a confession. Before Johnny Temple asked me to edit the Portland Noir
book for Akashic, my knowledge of the genre was pretty minimal. I've read some true crime books (Ann Rule
books, serial killer compendiums, stuff like that) and a couple of mysteries (Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red
because he was southern, that Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
book*) but not nearly enough to be some kind of authority. My reading habits are firmly planted in literary fiction. I'm not sure why, I've just never been grabbed by the mystery genre, and I have to admit, I have even felt a snobbishness against it (also — some of this stuff is what you'd call "books my mom would read").
In all fairness, I haven't really tried hard, even though people have told me to try out some of the marquee names: Connelly, Pelecanos, Hammett, Leonard, Jim Thompson (oh, wait! I did listen to a Jim Thompson book on tape once). But, I don't know, it's hard for me to try out a whole new genre when my list of literary novels is always never-ending. Of course, there are some readers who are just the opposite. I was setting up for a reading here at the store once — putting out the folding chairs, plugging in the mic — when one of the store regulars, an avid mystery reader, said, "I've tried to read books out of the literature section before, but I just got too bored. Nothing happens!"
So when Johnny talked me into it (again: snobbishness alert!), I had to think of a plan: who to ask and what to ask for. I couldn't pretend to know what made up a good mystery story, but I figured I knew what made up a good, well, story story. I started to realize that even some of the best stuff in the Blue Room (our literary heaven inside Powell's) has big whodunit elements running through it. So I started my story quest by asking a bunch of great Portland writers, some in the mystery field, but most in my comfort zone of literary fiction. The main questions I got shot back to me were, How noir does it have to be? and Does there need to be a detective in it?
I decided early on that this was going to be a loose kind of noir. It didn't necessarily need detectives and fast-talking con men. I said I simply wanted the stories to be dark and steeped in a sense of place and that there should be some crime or Portlandish mischief.
I ended up getting about 50 stories for the book and had to pick the best sixteen. It turned out to be a pretty tough process. I had to reject a few well-known Portland authors and I had to also make sure that the ones that made it into the book covered a good geographical swath of the city. There were a couple of stories at the end of the selecting process that I really wanted to keep but that would have made it 17 or 18 stories. I tried to talk Johnny into letting me have an extra story or two, but it was to no avail. Sorry, Scott Sparling and James Bernard Frost.
One of the great things about doing a project like this is discovering new writers. As the call for submissions got around, I saw a couple dozen stories from people I hadn't even heard of. Two of these people, Dan DeWeese and Megan Kruse, turned out to be my favorite surprises. Both of their stories benefit from an eerie quietude. DeWeese's protagonist in "The Sleeper" is a heartbroken guy who delivers newspapers in the dead of night. The tension in the narrative, the inner thoughts of this guy working a shitty job he never thought he'd have to take, reminded me of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle. Kruse's lonely stalkerish female narrator in "Lila" naively tries to woo a waitress who also prostitutes around 82nd Avenue. Kruse masterfully paints a portrait of confusion and ache in a part of town that is littered with broken down things. Both of these writers are fantastic and I'm sure we'll be hearing more and more from them.
I think reading through all the submissions for this book showed me how good crime fiction can be. Even some of the stories that I didn't fall in love with taught me some narrative tricks. I actually would love to take a stab at doing a follow-up. Portland Noir 2. The talent pool is definitely deep enough here. Now here's a final question for everyone: Which books in the crime/noir/mystery genre should I be reading?
* I know that one probably doesn't count, but it's a fun yarn.