Tuesday, December 1, 2009

30. Portland Noir edited by Kevin Sampsell

Portland Noir is part of a heralded series with a simple format: a short story collection by locally based authors, each set in a particular neighborhood or district of the titular city. The success of Brooklyn Noir, the series' inaugural edition published in 2004, led the way for future collections set in Boston, Detroit, D.C. -- the list goes on and on, with forthcoming editions planned for Barcelona, Copenhagen and numerous other exotic locales. I saw Portland Noir on the new fiction shelf at my library and instinctively grabbed it. My mom is from Portland and her family still lives there, so I've visited the city many times. I feel a little proprietary of Portland because of this personal connection, even though I haven't it explored it very much. And I don't know about you, but I find the word "noir" intriguing. If you label something as "noir" I want to know more about it. So I thought I would love this book; what could go wrong when you added Portland and noir together?

As it turns out, plenty. I hated it. This is just not the right book for me, for a few reasons:

First, I don't really like short stories. Never have. I didn't realize how little I enjoyed them until reading this collection. I want to spend more time with characters and experience more with them. In general, these stories centered around a specific event and its short-term consequences -- and the reader was usually thrown into the middle of the story, which was jarring for me. It shouldn't take three pages for me to figure out if the narrator is male or female when the whole story is only 20 pages long. The silver lining? When I didn't like a story, at least it was going to be over soon.

Second, I don't know Portland well enough to get a thrill out of the settings. I've never even been to Powell's Books (for shame!). I thought I would connect more to the locations in the stories, and I was disappointed when I didn't.

And finally, I just didn't like these specific stories. The noir aspect didn't work for me in the short story format. The tension would be building for 19 pages and then on the twentieth, the author would pull the rug out from under you with a twist ending that was supposed to be really clever but oftentimes was too abrupt and just plain stupid. Also, the dark and gritty subject material didn't appeal to me. One story in particular featured a drug kingpin assaulting a dealer with a pencil, and I just didn't need to read that (I'll spare you the details).

Of the 16 short stories in this volume, I only really enjoyed Coffee, Black by Bill Cameron. A retired detective working as a private investigator is working on a simple vandalism case that turns out to be more complicated. It wasn't too dark, it had a real mystery, and there was plenty of coffee. That works for me. There were a couple of other stories that were somewhat clever (Virgo by Jess Walter and The Red Room by Chris A. Bolton), but I didn't whole-heartedly enjoy.

This series wouldn't be so successful if people didn't enjoy the stories. As it happens, I'm just not one of them.

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