Edited by E. J. Olsen and John C. Hocking
Detroit seems, on the face of it, the perfect location for a geographically-oriented collection of noir stories, with its story of industrial powerhouse riches gone to rags and its resurgence blighted by, well, the blight. It's the perfect setting for dark humor, detectives, and a life of crime. What a shame, then, that even as so many stories in Detroit Noir absolutely nail the atmosphere- a happy consequence, I suspect, of using local writers or writers who had actually lived in the city- they tend toward the mediocre, with only a few simultaneously delivering on plot, characters, and atmosphere. One standout belongs unequivocally to perennial powerhouse Joyce Carol Oates, whose story "Panic" brilliantly nails the titular emotion but which relies only slightly on a Detroit location to do so. Regardless, the story is a fast paced and surprisingly effective litfic character study, not hampered by its artistry and living up, in my opinion, to the author's sky-high standards. And though many stories do not particularly satisfy on the noir front per se, a lack of outright darkness hardly hampers a story like "The Coffee Break," which hearkens back to Detroit in happier economic times. "The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit" similarly nails the nostalgic notes, using them as a reflective device rather than battering the image of abandoned skyscrapers into readers' minds, as so many of the other efforts do. And though the more hipster side of the city is, understandably, muted within these pages, Roger K. Johnson's "Hey Love" is a stunningly powerful study of the impact of Motown, a spark of hope and brilliance the city can cling to among the depleted landscapes against which so many other narratives play out.
Among these, the one that best nails a traditional noir atmosphere and lead detective is Loren D. Estleman's "Kill the Cat." Opening the collection with a standard grittiness, the story whiffs a bit on an unexplained motive and plodding plot, but absolutely nails the feel of the endeavor. Likewise, "The Night Watchman Is Asleep," by E. J. Olsen, uses the city's apparent corruption and reputation to fuel a narrative as seen through the outsider, an effective technique delivered within a compelling story and brutal, yet appropriate conclusion. Also happily unflinching is P. J. Parrish's "Pride," undoubtedly the book's best story. The protagonist is just well-enough fleshed out that readers are intrigued, but is vaguely enough constructed to allow for maximum sympathy, which is essential as the story moves quickly toward a powerful, and inevitable, conclusion. The story brilliantly encapsulates the strange mixture of bleakness and hope that, in their strange combination, truly define modern Detroit, and its surprisingly gotcha ending only adds to the murkiness. Also unexpectedly effective is Megan Abbott's "Our Eyes Couldn't Stop Opening," a coming of age story that diverges from expectation at just the right moments, told occasionally in a convincing third-person-plural, and hitting just the right notes to reinforce the idea that Detroit can defy expectations, and that noir needn't be discovered in the expected places. Nothing in Detroit Noir is revolutionary, and many stories struggle just to reach "pretty good," but though many do settle for wincingly similar descriptions of the crumbling landscape, none are truly terrible and a few rise above to deliver powerful narrative experiences.