Anthology Review: Cape Cod Noir
edited by David L. Ulin
Akashic Books, 2011
According to our Holy Bible on the subject (I refer, of course, to Rosemary Herbert’s Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing), the noir mystery sub-genre has certain rather narrow constraints, depicting “the controlled depravity and existential absurdities faced by men and women caught in a web of random violence, amorality, and lust for sex and money.” The authors of this particular entry, James L. Traylor and Max Allan Collins, go on: “This bleak view of life is a result of the Great Depression, when personal ethics and ability were coopted by forces totally beyond the control of the individual.”
Doesn’t exactly suggest Cape Cod, does it? And the timing’s wrong – the enormous upsurge in Cape population came well after the Great Depression, and it was composed almost exclusively of people escaping its bleak view of life, not extending it. The evocations of noir – grit, rain, neon, most of all squalor – seem completely alien to Cape Cod (even such low-rent districts as Harwichport put up a brave show of respectability). Might as well look for the sub-genre in Carol Stream, or Coral Gables, or Disneyland. So David Ulin’s 2011 anthology Cape Cod Noir immediately raises questions of why it exists in the first place.
Most of the answers aren’t reassuring. This is the latest in a long series of like-minded anthologies, born of the modest financial success of entries like Manhattan Noir and Boston Noir. Long series start out as the bane of creativity and, if they go on too long, end up as the bane of common sense – and something of that rot seems to have taken hold here. The series includes such volumes as San Diego Noir, Philadelphia Noir, and Orange County Noir. Lagos Noir is forthcoming. Ulin might talk, as in his Introduction, about a “dime-store genre that exposes our hearts of darkness, the literary equivalent of the blues,” but when there’s quite this much water in the vermouth, darkness will be crepuscular at best.
And indeed, what results in Cape Cod Noir is a double travesty: neither Cape Cod nor noir. Talismanic place-names are ticked off like items on a tax form – each story is set in a different Cape (or thereabouts) town, and in each the hard-bitten narrator hip-checks the local pizza place, the local clam shack, and, in the book’s least savory sub-theme, the recent increase in foreigners (and we’re not talking Methodists). Virtually all the narrators of these stories are out-of-luck losers who have returned to the Cape years after some idyllic earlier interlude, and who bring violence in their wake. They don’t beach-comb or book-hunt or antique; they grit their teeth, wash in the sink, and shoot the hand that feeds/employs/esteems them. Throughout the book, simple violence and the stupid willingness to commit violence is mistaken for the noir sensibility.
It has a curious effect. It makes you realize – it reminds you – just how gawd-awful 99.9 percent of all noir fiction is. This is a kind of writing that makes a fetish of artlessness, and in all but the most talented hands, that artlessness will simply be artless. Stripped-down bare-bones writing is so, so close to bad writing at even the best of times, after all (some of the worst fiction ever written by an American was written by Ernest Hemingway when he forgot that fact, or when he thought it didn’t apply to him).
It’s all bad writing here, alas. When we read in “Second Chance,” Eyssa East’s Buzzards Bay entry in the collection, “I never meant to be in the car that killed that girl. It was like that was someone else, not me. Like I wasn’t even there. But I was,” we might hope we’re in on some kind of joke – but no: everything here veers between amateur stark melodrama and amateur florid melodrama, as in Adam Mansbach’s Martha’s Vineyard entry, “Variations on a Fifty-Pound Bale”:
It is generally agreed upon that at some point during the last several decades, a fifty-pound bale of commercial-grade marijuana, sealed in plastic and lashed with burlap, was found bobbing no more than a thousand feet off Menemsha Beach, in the calm waters separating Martha’s Vineyard from the privately owned, unpopulated Elizabeth Islands.
No consensus is to be had regarding the discoverer of the child-sized brick (child-sized in the sense of weighing as much as a ten-year-old, not in the sense of being an appropriate portion for a preadolescent), nor its fate.
(The factual error in that excerpt – any Cape person will spot it in a second, though they may consider it declasse to mention it – is also typical of the collection … which is rather incredible, in an anthology series presumably bankrolled by local sales.)
“In noir,” Ulin writes, “we know that help is not coming, that the universe devolves into entropy, that everything goes from bad to worse.” So you don’t need any final words from me.