The 15 stories in Chicago Noir: The Classics (Akashic Books), selected by local literary notable Joe Meno (whose novel Marvel and a Wonder we wrote about earlier today), can be called noir in the sense that they generally examine the less illuminated sides of humanity, but they’re not all of the hard-boiled variety and some aren’t even all that crime-y. But the noirishness ranges from very dark to shady to just a bit shadowy—sometimes even a little light peeks through. Here follow mini reviews of all the pieces in the collection.
Part I: The Jazz Age
“30 Seconds of Darkness” by Harry Stephen Keeler (Rogers Park, 1916)
This story opens with a couple of fancy gentlemen sitting around talking about how one of them, professional thief DeLancey, plans to steal a $100,000 diamond necklace from the neck of its wearer at a Rogers Park dinner party. “‘Do you mean to assert, DeLancey,’ I managed finally to ask, ‘that you intend to try such a feat as that at a dinner table surrounded by thirty or more people—and the usual two or three Pinkerton detectives present?'” Oh yes, that is exactly what DeLancey asserts. It’s his craziest scheme yet. These guys are like Holmes and Watson in bizarro world. Top-notch story!
“Brothers” by Sherwood Anderson (Douglas, 1921)
This first-person piece, set in late October, is just lovely, in setting and in story. The narrator, upon his walks, often encounters an old man who’s always carrying his little dog in his arms. “He is a little cracked,” they say. The old man’s stories, all based on recent newspaper accounts, are grandiose and impossible. But to him they’re real. There’s no crime here, unless the crime is madness and sadness. Fogs come in, rains come down, leaves fall. Beautiful and melancholy.
“Kaddish for the Kid” by Max Allan Collins (West Town, 1998)
OK, now a real noir crime story. The narrator runs the A-1 Detective Agency. Well, he runs it because he’s the only employee, until a young wannabe dick hires on with him and gets killed on a stakeout on his 21st birthday. The story is notable for the line “Katie knew a good dick when she saw one.” A bit gruesome in places but still an awful lot of fun to read. Good stuff, and based on a real crime case.
“The Man Who Went to Chicago” by Richard Wright (Illinois Medical District, 1945)
Wright’s story, set in a medical research institute in Chicago where whites run the show and blacks are relegated to lesser, menial jobs, shows racial division and inequality in metaphorical and actual ways. The dogs who are experimented on there, in the interest of medical science, have their vocal cords cut so that their howling won’t disturb patients in other parts of the hospital. “Later, when the dogs came to, they would lift their heads to the ceiling and gape in a soundless wail. The sight became lodged in my imagination as a symbol of silent suffering.” A very powerful piece and an interesting choice for this collection.
Part II: Noir and Neo-Noir
“He Swung and He Missed” by Nelson Algren (Lakeview, 1942)
A story about Young Rocco, a once promising boxer now past his prime. If he ever really had a prime. But he’s willing to give it one last shot for a big payday so that he and his loving wife can make a new life together. He’s supposed to take a dive in favor of a young, up-and-coming golden boy. A lot of money’s riding on the outcome, and none of it is Young Rocco’s. And yet, “The great strength of a fighting man is his pride.” A heartwarming tale that has the reader pulling for Young Rocco all the way. Can he pull it off? The ending had me saying, “Oh, Henry!”
“I’ll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen” by Fredric Brown (Magnificent Mile, 1948)
A popular jazz musician is in a mental hospital. From what he’s been told, he’s there because he slit his wife’s throat and then tried to kill himself afterward by slicing his wrists. But he doesn’t remember a damn thing about any of it. Until he gets back home. This story makes me want to read everything Fredric Brown ever wrote.
“The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith (Gold Coast, 1952)
OK, if two women on a road trip finally admitting that they love each other and finally ending up in the same bed in a hotel and being quite happy about it is noir, I guess it’s noir.
“The Starving Dogs of Little Croatia” by Barry Gifford (Wicker Park, 2009)
A couple of immigrants from Croatia are together in a Wicker Park bar. They speak fractured English. A bum outside dies from the cold. The bum is found by two young boys walking along the street. The body is brought inside the bar. The extended tongue retreats into the corpse as the body warms up inside the bar. “Drca and Boro drank in silence.” Later, Drca says, “Be careful of starving dogs. They are hunting in group when weather is bad.” Upshot, I guess? Dogs = bad. People = bad. Not sure why this story made the cut.
“Blue Note by Stuart M. Kaminsky (Woodlawn, 1997)
Setting: an underground poker game. Very high stakes. A professional gambler has to win a pot (in the $40,000 range) to ensure that a drug-using jazz singer doesn’t get her finger chopped off by the dealer she’s indebted to. The singer happens to be the mother of the gambler. Noirish, oh yes. The gambler, the mother/singer, even the dealer are all playing the best game they can with the cards they’ve been dealt, and the ending is a sweet knockout. They’re all still messes, but they’re the best messes they can be.
“The Whole World Is Watching” by Libby Fischer Hellmann (Grant Park, 2007)
Chicago. 1968. The Democratic National Convention. Riots. This story brings it down to a few people and their responses to the out-of-control strife. A legacy cop has to confront his feelings when he sees protesters that he’s sympathetic to get pounded by his fellow police. One young activist looks like his little sister. An inspiring story, but not so nourish.
Part III: Modern Crime
“Skin Deep” by Sara Paretsky (Michigan Avenue, 1987)
V.I. Warshawksi is on the case. A guy dies after having a poison-filled facial in a Michigan Avenue boutique, and the cosmetician who administered the facial is pegged for the murder. Poison. Clear-cut case. Eh, no. V.I. digs a little deeper, and while the digging is pretty interesting, the resolution happens so fast it’s like hey, let’s drag this out a little longer, OK? Not so noirish. It ends with “I hastily poured a drink and changed the subject.” Same here.
“Death and the Point Spread” by Percy Spurlark Parker (Lawndale, 1995)
Number one: Percy Spurlark Parker is an excellent noir writer name. Now on to the story. Does it meet the criteria of noir? Hmm, yes, broadly considered. A longtime south-side black sportswriter ends up dead. Hit and run. Another person involved ends in the case up dead. Also in a hit and run. Coincidence? Of course not! You’re reading noir fiction. It appears that the mob is involved in point shaving for a particular college football game. It appears that the star quarterback for one of the teams is involved in the scheme. But is he the one involved in the hit-and-runs? Hell no. He has no idea. But someone close to him does. Noir factor: 8 out of 10.
“One Holy Night” by Sandra Cisneros (Pilsen, 1988)
I’m not sure why this story is in this collection. It just doesn’t fit. It’s definitely not noir, in any case. It can be construed as sad—but not dark. But maybe that’s a matter of personal perspective.
“The Thirtieth Amendment” by Hugh Holton (Bridgeport, 1995)
Dystopia times 1,000. The Newt Gingich White House administration. The biggest new industry is based on the Tri-X Law, which allows the death penalty for many citizens, for many crimes, under many criteria. This particular death giver wants to meet his victim’s beheader; not to wonder why he did the beheading, but to acquire his skill. He’s looking for a mentor.
“We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek (Oak Street Beach, 1993)
This is a lovely story of budding romance and sexuality, and there’s a dead, pregnant woman’s body that washes up on the beach art the heart of it. While he and she are trying to “do it.” But their main concern is not about the woman (it’s an auxiliary concern, if anything), and how her life led her up to this point of death on the shore with a dead yet to-be-born child inside of her. The characters are indifferent to her, ultimately. And I guess that’s noir.