Thursday, March 31, 2011


I have conflicted feelings about Baltimore. There are a lot of things I like about the city - the beautiful architecture, the relative lack of pretentiousness (compared to DC), the cheap beer. But I have horrible memories connected to the city and always have this looking-over-my-shoulder feeling when I go there.

So, it was nice to pay a visit to Baltimore through the pages of Baltimore Noir, a collection of short stories edited by best-selling author Laura Lippman. Baltimore Noir is quirkier than most crime fiction collections and there are a few solid stories, but it's an uneven collection at best.

Building a crime fiction collection around a locale is an interesting concept. I think it's also one that's hard to handle, if you've ever read anything that's set in an area you know pretty well, because there's a fine line in writing organically and naturally about an area, and being OMFG let me rub this location in your face!! Unfortunately some of the stories veer into this territory, including some that feel compelled to list each.and.every bar in Fells Point (or Fell's Point, if you're a purist, which I am not).

The collection is divided into three parts: Part I: The Way Things Were (Baltimore, before the light industry completely decamped and the city fell in on itself), Part II: The Way Things Are (Baltimore more-or-less in the present), and Part II: The Way Things Never Were (Baltimore slightly in the future).

Lippman is undoubtedly the collection's biggest name, and it opens with her "Easy as A-B-C." A native Baltimorean is hired to renovate his childhood home in gentrifying Locust Point by a newly arrived yuppie. The story's rather predictable yuppie-bashing takes a literal, and fatal, turn. The rest of the stories in Part I are forgettable at best.

In Part II, David Simon's "Stainless Steel," about a homeless man and his younger companion's accidental death, is good despite a clunky and awkward bad-cop narrative. Lisa Respers France's "Almost Missed It By a Hair" is written like a excerpt from Clue and is nowhere near clever enough to be taken as satire.

Part III has two of the collection's best stores, Tim Cockey's "The Haunting of Slink Ridgely" and Sujata Massey's "Goodwood Gardens," which has a Palahniuk-esque streak of sarcasm running through it.

"The Haunting of Slink Ridgely" is a ghost story about a dead milkman. Slink Ridgely, swerving to avoid the golden retriever of one of his customers, flips over his delivery truck and dies in front of a young girl who blames herself for his death. The ghost of Slink, now free to noodle around between Baltimores past and present, divides his time between watching bygone horse races and keeping an eye on the girl who holds herself responsible for his death.

In "Goodwood Gardens," a rich couple buys a lavish historical home from only to begin believing that it's haunted. The story's ending saves it from aping Palahniuk's Lullaby, although the slick, avaricious real estate agent could have walked out of one of his stories.

The stories in Baltimore Noir seem too self-conscious about being noir, and it makes the collection feel like its reaching for something the writers don't really have the talent to back up. Of course, the very act of writing noir may seem self-conscious, since its such a style-driven genre. The city lends itself to noir very well, from the feel of decay to the ever-present crime, which is why some of the stories simply feel like they're trying too hard.

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