Big Sky Crime
Reviewed in the United States on 25 April 2020
Some 15 years ago, a small publisher named Akashic Books embarked on a very ambitious project. They began publishing a series of anthologies, collectively called “Akashic Noir,” each set in a specific geographic locale and featuring stories rooted in that location. Some of their earlier works like “Chicago Noir” and “San Francisco Noir” were easy to put together, as these cities have a lengthy history of hardnosed literary crime. But the series has expanded to a lot of locations that might not seem ripe for anthologizing, such as the Big Sky Country of Montana. Surprisingly, however, “Montana Noir” features some excellent stories that give readers a real feel for the state.
I should first note that the word “noir” is used rather loosely in “Montana Noir.” Few of the stories qualify as classic noir, although all involve crime, usually rather brutal crime. These are not Mrs. Fletcher’s cozy rural mysteries, nor are they the type of crime stories traditionally found in “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.” Instead, most of them portray a hardboiled slice of lowlife. They often a definitive ending as well, but they usually feel genuine.
“Montana Noir” comprises 14 stories, all written by authors who are either native Montanans or who spent considerable time there. The best-known contributors are James Grady, author of “Six Days of the Condor,” Thomas McGuane, who wrote “92 in the Shade,” and Walter Kirn, author of “Up in the Air.” However, nearly all of the contributors have substantial resumes. What they all possess is a knack for descriptive language and an ability to create a real sense of place. This is a Montana of small towns, a hit-and-miss economy, loneliness, and lots of empty spaces. Many of these stories wind up being depressing, but the emotions feel well-earned.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “The Road You Take” by James Grady. It describes the life of a group of strippers who, along with their pimp/manager, go around the state in a minivan every month, hitting the circuit of low-rent strip clubs. Needless to say, it’s a monotonous life, at least until one of the women decides to do something about it. Another favorite is perhaps the only true mystery in the book, “Fireweed,” by Janet Skeslien Charles. The story is narrated by a high school student working as a waitress at the local café. Life is fairly dull until the body of a stranger is found in an empty field. The story is not so much about solving the crime. Instead, it’s about how the crime becomes the focus of conversation in a town where not much else happens.
“Ace in the Hole” by Eric Heidle is a story set in the present that could just as easily have taken place a century earlier. An ex-con, appropriately named Chance, returns to his hometown after serving a stretch for a botched dope run that ended with the marijuana cargo at the bottom of a river. His ex-employers now want him to make good the money that they paid for the lost shipment, and the story eventually turns into a showdown straight out of an earlier era. Perhaps the only story that goes outside the state line is “Oasis” by Walter Kirn. A young man who works at a pizza parlor fancies himself in love with a local stripper. You can probably guess what happens next, but the woman learns that leaving her would-be boyfriend behind is easier said than done. This story is one of the few with a conventional mystery-magazine storyline, but Kirn takes the time to develop his main character and the setting, making this feel like something that might occur instead of merely a Hitchcockian punch line.
To be fair, some of the stories in “Montana Noir” don’t work as well as the others, partly because some of them feel more slice of life than dramatically self-contained stories. However, there wasn’t a single clunker in the lot. Further, almost all of them had some great descriptive language throughout. More importantly, they didn’t feel like stories that were arbitrarily set in Montana because the author picked a rural or Western location at random. Instead, they felt organic to the state. I confess that I’ve never been to Montana, so I have no idea how realistic these stories are geographically or culturally. However, I’ve read various books set there, and the best of these stories rank right up there with them. This collection may not be true noir, but it’s noir done right.
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