If you think Richmond's a conservative family town, you're a sucker.
River City is really a seedy cesspool of filth and muck, a grease stain peopled with patsies, two-timin' dames and shadowy intentions, a jail sentence complete with road signs.
At least that's what a new anthology, “Richmond Noir,” would have us believe. This new book of 15short stories from Akashic Press is a lively and locally flavored homage to the hard-boiled writers that critic Edmund Wilson once called “the poets of the tabloid murder” — guys such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
“Richmond Noir” paints Central Virginia as a dangerous and unsavory place where bad things can happen, often for no reason at all. “Richmond is a cool city,” says Tom De Haven, a co-editor of the book and the author of one of its more provocative stories. “It's a complex, complicated city with a complicated past. … I think the stories capture that.”
The latest in a series of similarly themed regional collections from Akashic Press, “Richmond Noir” offers up the complete catalog of dirty deeds done dirt cheap. In keeping with a format that Akashic started with its first collection, “Brooklyn Noir” and continued with other volumes such as “Paris Noir,” “Las Vegas Noir” and the forthcoming “Philadelphia Noir,” each short story is set in a different section or neighborhood of a particular city or locality.
Some tales capture the flavor of their setting while others eschew plot entirely and concentrate on mood (noir is less of a genre than it is a fatalistic view). Tom Robbins, former Richmond resident and the author of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” sets the scene nicely in the foreword: “It may sound odd but when I think of Richmond, Virginia, my thoughts turn frequently to alleys.”
The general public knows hard-boiled noir best through film noir: bitter, cynical black and white movies such as “Double Indemnity” and “Out of the Past” that stink of sex, betrayal and death; these films from the 1940s and '50s introduced and stamped into archetypes the seedy private eye and the femme fatale. But their literary origins can be traced back to the early 20th century and cheap pulp magazines such as “Black Mask,” which featured taut, two-fisted tales of existence in the harsh angular shadows of the city. This is where noir was born.
“Richmond Noir,” however, was born at a writer's conference. “It all started at the annual [Associated Writing Programs] convention,” says writer Brian Castleberry, who co-edited the book with De Haven and literary editor Andrew Blossom.
“Andrew and I met the people from Akashic,” Castleberry says. “We were just standing at their table, just talking to these guys and they said, ‘Well, how about a ‘Richmond Noir'?”
After laughing off the suggestion, the duo wised up. They got their writing teacher from Virginia Commonwealth University, the author of several books (including “It's Superman”) De Haven, on board. From start to finish, the book took several shapes and three years to complete. But eventually they assembled a dream team of local authors — Clay McLeod Chapman, Dean King and Anne Thomas Soffee, among them — to contribute. “David Robbins was one of the first to get on board,” De Haven says. “He got Tom Robbins [no relation] involved. Tom said he would do the foreword to the book as long as we didn't change a word.”
The best stories in the book play like taut little movies set in places you frequent every day, twisted to highlight the grimness of life: A redneck fishing trip turns into a death trap for some Oregon Hill residents; a homeless couple tries to survive on Belle Isle; a jazz musician battles addiction and writer's block in Jackson Ward; a veteran newsman about to be downsized from the daily newspaper investigates a murder in his apartment building.
One undeniable standout, representing the Museum District, is Pir Rothenberg's “The Rose Red Vial,” a steamy tale of gothic art thievery set amidst the austerity of a Poe exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society. But the capper, Robbins' “Homework,” is a chilling confrontation between a Sandston teacher and a former student that beautifully captures the matter-of-fact violence and muted emotions that make the best noir writing so fascinating.
Of course, these were locations that the authors knew well. “We let the writers pick their own neighborhoods,” Blossom says. “And we were really surprised that there wasn't a story set in the Fan.”
There's no private eye story either, the kind of thing the original poets of the tabloid murder made famous. But noir has greatly expanded its scope in the years since the writing style first debuted — thanks to writers as varied as Elmore Leonard, David Goodis and Richmond's own Robert Deane Pharr. “All these things exist but there has been 50 years of playing with the boundaries of the form,” Blossom says. “With this book, it was a surprise to see how the elements of noir were translated.”
Contributing authors will read from “Richmond Noir” Feb. 11 at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St., at 12 noon. They'll also read Feb. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Fountain Bookstore, 1312 E. Cary St., For information on future readings visit richmondnoir.blogspot.com.