Local writers spin dark stories

Pittsburgh Noir was edited by local mystery writer Kathleen George and published in May 2011. (credit: Courtesy of Akashic Noir) Pittsburgh Noir was edited by local mystery writer Kathleen George and published in May 2011. (credit: Courtesy of Akashic Noir)

When one thinks of the noir genre, it’s usually in the context of cinema. Black and white film, dramatic close shots, and a lone man walking away in the rain come to mind. Akashic Books breaks away from this medium, however, with its series of noir short story collections, each set in a specific city. One of the latest installments in this series is Pittsburgh Noir, a collection of short, Pittsburgh-based noir stories that showcases the darker side of fictional ’Burgh residents.

While many people might think that noir only consists of brooding private detectives dealing with mysterious female clients, the genre is actually a bit more varied than that. Film noir usually includes alienated, morally ambiguous heroes; crime; and a pessimistic outlook, with its characters often placed in unwanted, doomed situations. The 14 contributing authors to Pittsburgh Noir have taken the characteristics of this classic film genre and applied them, with varying degrees of success, to the short story medium.

These stories take the reader through every nook and cranny of Pittsburgh, from the suburbs of Fox Chapel to the bars in South Side to a houseboat on the Allegheny River. There’s something comfortable about reading stories solely set in Pittsburgh — there is a rush of familiarity and associations when the stories mention a place you see or go to all too often, like the apartment on North Craig Street mentioned in Kathleen George’s “Intruder,” or Pamela’s Diner in Squirrel Hill, at which the narrator eats in Aubrey Hirsch’s “Cheater.” Of course, some of that comfort is reduced when that familiar location serves as the setting for a grisly murder.

As one would expect from the noir genre, there are plenty of murders, but every writer interprets those murders differently: Carnegie Mellon professor Terrance Hayes delivers a poetic, introspective reflection upon a murder in East Liberty in his story “Still Air,” while Carnegie Mellon professor Hilary Masters’ “At the Buena Vista” gives a humorous, conversational account of a middle-aged man who is after the fortune of one of his relatives.

Several of the stories stray rather far from noir conventions, which detracts from the book’s overall impact as a noir collection. Carlos Antonio Delgado’s “Far Beneath,” for instance, is a beautifully written — yet disturbing — story from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy who begins exploring sexuality with his brother. Despite the author’s great style, the subject matter doesn’t seem to relate much to noir. Similarly, “Homecoming” by Kathryn Miller Haines gives an account of a World War II soldier coming home to his cheating wife, and the story doesn’t have any identifiable noir characteristics. These stories, while well-written, distract from the book’s focus on the noir genre.

Thankfully, the majority of the stories in the collection remain on point, like Lila Shaara’s ghostly “Atom Smasher,” whose twist ending is guaranteed to surprise. George’s “Intruder” also provides a fresh perspective on the classic crime mystery, complete with a full cast of interesting characters and a modern take on the quintessential femme fatale.