Boston has been in the news lately with more than its fair share of bad news. But this East Coast city of the Ivy League and the Brahmin WASP aristocracy has also had a dark underbelly. Everything from the Boston Massacre of 1770 to the Boston Strangler of the 1960s, the town of MIT, Harvard, and the Atlantic, is no stranger to blood, brutality, and death. The Akashic Noir series returns to Bean Town with Boston Noir 2: the Classics, edited by Dennis Lehane, Mary Cotton, and Jaime Clarke. In a bloody tribute to this great city, Lehane and company have resurrected several out-of-print classics and pushed the meaning of noir into peculiar places.
The anthology is a rogues gallery of literary heavy hitters. Joyce Carol Oates gives us an occult tale of Gilded Age Boston. Written originally in 1977, the short story reads like an extended riff on “The Turn of the Screw.” There are stories by Robert B. Parker, Dennis Lehane, George V. Higgins, Andre Dubus, and the late David Foster Wallace. Excepting a portion of Wallace’s gigantic tome Infinite Jest, we follow two ex-junkies as they wander around the Brighton neighborhood. Wallace intersperses flashbacks that become scenes of simultaneous gut-wrenching sadness and gut-busting hilarity. The farcical-tragic tone is buried beneath Wallace’s trademark manic prose and the inevitable footnotes.
Because of recent events, Robert B. Parker’s short story “Surrogate” has added menace. Set in Watertown, where the surviving Tsarnaev brother was cornered and eventually captured, the story involves impotence, rape, and revenge.
“Townies” by Andre Dubus is about a murder of a college girl. The first half has a lonely campus security guard narrate his discovery. Both voyeuristic and pathetic, we witness a husk of a man enact a masquerade of daily duties. The second half is about the drunken college lout who murders the girl. I’d have mentioned spoilers earlier, but the story isn’t about solving a mystery in the conventional sense. With an unsettling and spare prose style, Dubus delves into the greater mystery of the male psyche in the modern age. Civilization is nothing but a thin veneer covering a slavering beast beneath. The short story has a haunted quality of the marginal characters stumbling around Beckett Country.
Besides these short stories, the editors reprint rare classics from George V. Higgins, the author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and Barbara Neely, who has written mystery stories about an African-American domestic as the protagonist. Neely’s novel, Blanche Cleans Up, is a fun whodunit, but also a fantastic meditation on race and class in modern America.
For those unfamiliar with Greater Boston and its literary heritage, Boston Noir 2: the Classics is a great place to start. And like the bar where everyone knows your name, you’ll meet familiar faces and new ones.
Out of 10/9.0