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State of Darkness

by Published on

Since the 2004 release of Brooklyn Noir, a collection of short stories written by some of the borough’s top crime and mystery writers, Akashic Books’ Noir series has swelled to over forty titles. Seven more have been set in New York City. Phoenix, Portland, Paris and Philly all have their own, and even the residents of central Virginia can be proud of their Richmond Noir. And if Akashic can devote an entire story collection to a town of 200,000 people like Richmond, how many Texas cities merit their own book?

Apparently, none. Instead, Lone Star Noir attempts to encompass the entire state in a scant fourteen stories. It’s an inherently flawed idea, and the result is a collection that jerks us from the Gulf to El Paso and back with little structure or cohesion, outside of a rather lame attempt to separate the stories into sections labeled “Gulf Coast Texas,” “Back Roads Texas” and “Big City Texas.”

Not only does the book feel disjointed and thrown together, but it just might actually be so. Editor Bobby Byrd himself writes in the introduction that some of these stories came “at very short notice,” and it shows. Too many of these pieces read like rough drafts, hurriedly scribbled to meet a next-hour deadline. How else to explain lazy lines like “Elliott had just won some court case that paid him 30 percent of yippee-I-never-have-to-work-again,” or, about a dead Mafioso, “His days of eating linguini were over”? How about a gut-shot character who traces a name in blood on his own profusely-bleeding stomach, and the name not only remains legible, but leads to the story’s resolution? Like “the slab of bologna [that] smelled faintly in the early morning heat,” Lone Star Noir can’t quite escape the scent of its own conceit.

It’s a shame, too, because there are some stories here that deserve better company. Claudia Smith’s Galveston-set “Catgirl” will jump off the page and grab you by the neck—while you’re still trying valiantly to choke down the story that precedes it. Likewise, the late James Crumley’s “Luck” is an editor’s dream, harrowing and horrifying in six succinct pages, but its brevity serves only to shine a light on the flaws of some of the lesser stories that go on for six, ten, sometimes fifteen pages too long.

The “Gulf Coast” section is the strongest here, with Smith’s “Catgirl” followed by “Who Stole My Monkey?” co-written by David Corbett and Luis Alberto Urrea. The only two non-Texans in the bunch, Corbett and Urrea tell of a down-on-his-luck musician named Chester who follows a Mexican drug lord across the state in an effort to recover his stolen tour bus and accordion. Although the accordion is a family heirloom and Chester’s only true love, he doesn’t consider involving the police, because “you don’t call the law to help you fetch a stolen bus when there’s an ounce of coke on board, not to mention a half-pound of weed, a mayonnaise jar full of Oxycontin, and enough crank to whirl you across Texas a dozen times and back.” Corbett and Urrea here achieve a task difficult for outsiders—capturing the beats and grooves of this state without sounding like overwhelmed visitors. “Midnight in East Texas,” they write of a bar in Port Arthur, “the music savage and hip, the band hitting it good, the room steamy, the dance crowd punchy from the beat but craving more, always more.”

“Back Roads Texas” highlights some towns that wouldn’t otherwise see the inside of a Noir book, including Crumley’s fictional “Crumley, Texas,” Joe R. Lansdale’s Gladewater story “Six-Finger Jack,” and the Tyler-set “Cherry Coke.” The Crumley is story is so good that he probably should have a Texas town named after him, and Lansdale’s is entertaining, but none of the others inspire.

Like big-city Texas itself, the “Big City” section is hit and miss, but a couple of the entries here do manage to show us what goes on below the surface of our largest cities. Sarah Cortez’s “Montgomery Clift” (Houston) and Jesse Sublett’s “Moral Hazard” (Austin) are particularly gloomy and resonant. In the former, a father represses the grotesque implications of his son’s nocturnal absences. In the latter, Sublett, through seamless point-of-view shifts, provides us glimpses into law enforcement, politics, religion, crime, and even the insurance industry. It’s a lot to cover in 21 pages, but he handled it deftly.

Wish I could say the same of the collection as a whole. Unless Akashic plans to give Texas its due by releasing more localized Noir titles, Lone Star Noir will be our state’s only entry in this series, and one that will be forgotten soon after it hits the stands.

But maybe Texas doesn’t deserve better. Maybe we’ve been wrong all along. Maybe the place where everything’s bigger is actually Richmond, Virginia?

Texas Observer books and fiction editor David Duhr runs WriteByNight, a writing center and writers’ ser- vice in Austin.