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Noir Haven

For me, the word “noir” brings to mind quick-talking mid-century mobsters in black and white suits lingering in the back alleys of menacing, unnamed cities. But the stories from the anthology New Haven Noir (Akashic Books, 2017) fill the familiar streets of New Haven with shadows and populate its apartments and hotel rooms with sinister people. From the monstrous, anonymous guest in Michael Cunningham’s “The Man in Room Eleven” to the addled and violent widow in Karen E. Olson’s “The Boy,” New Haven Noir’s characters move among prominent New Haven landmarks. These landmarks—Sterling Library, Beinecke Plaza, Long Wharf, Wooster Square—are so specific and immediate that they jar readers who know New Haven and flavor the city with a bitter taste.

The book’s ability to defamiliarize was made apparent to me one afternoon this summer. “Callback” by Sarah Pemberton Strong, the second story in the anthology, takes place near the Audubon Arts District, between Lincoln and Orange Streets, in a neighborhood where “[m]ost of the big houses […] have been converted into law offices or therapy practices.” The story’s murder, however, occurs in “a gorgeous, three-story brownstone.” As I reached this line in the story, I looked out from the porch of my summer sublease on Orange Street, behind Lincoln, in the Audubon Arts District. I lifted my gaze across the street, where I saw two big houses that had been converted into a therapy practice and a law office, respectively. I raced down the stairs onto the sidewalk across the street and swiveled to look up at the building that contained my apartment, which was (you guessed it) a beautiful three-story brownstone.  The murder from the story happens in my very own basement. Going downstairs to do laundry would never be the same.

The brownstone in “Callback” was an especially bold noir invasion of New Haven, but most of the story locations in the anthology are less specific—though that just means their eeriness is cast more widely. Alice Mattison’s “Innovative Methods,” about a visit to Lighthouse Point by residents of a troubled youths’ home, is sure to lurk in the back of my brain the next time my friends and I see a group of kids playing at that beach.

The authors included in New Haven Noir, an eclectic bunch of Yale University professors, New Haven residents, and concerned non-New Haveners, picked their locations on a first-come, first-serve basis. “The early bird gets the neighborhood,” quipped Amy Bloom, a former creative writing professor at Yale and current director of the Shapiro Creative Writing Center at Wesleyan University, who edited the anthology. The system worked: the sixteen stories leave no nook of New Haven untouched. Human remains are found in Union Station, denied tenure leads to murder in East Rock, an innocent plumber is framed in the Audubon Arts District. “If noir is about corruption, absurdity, anxiety, the nightmare of bureaucracy,” writes Bloom in her introduction to the anthology, “then New Haven, with multiple universities and multiple clinics and multiple, sometimes clashing, neighborhoods, is a noir town.”

The premise of the book deserves discussion itself. New Haven Noir is one in a series of anthologies of literary noir published by Akashic Books since 2004. Ninety-two currently exist, covering cities from Tel Aviv to Dubai, with multiple dedicated to each borough of New York City, and twenty still forthcoming.

The primary appeal of each of these books is their focus on the hyper-local. In New Haven Noir, things as ephemeral as food truck placement and the wait times for lattes in East Rock aren’t just ornamental details, but crucial parts of the setting. (Bloom says she had to assure her barista at East Rock Coffee that he wasn’t the basis for her story’s “glacially-slow” espresso-slinger.) We often ask fiction—and increasingly, social media—to whisk us off to places we’ve never been; for local readers, New Haven Noir does not offer this sort of escape.

Yet, having read Bloom’s anthology, I find that localism and noir are well-suited to each other. It’s one thing to read about a psychopath who imprisons people in a generic town library and another to envision someone being tied to the shelves in the stacks of Sterling, perhaps even with zip ties stolen from the CEID. While a non-New Havener could certainly enjoy the collection, its true audience is residents of the Elm City. Reading about these places we know so intimately—or even just ones we pass through every once in a while—gives us the sense of being in on a sort of secret.

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