The premise behind Pittsburgh Noir: Take a selection of local writers, some well known, and let each write a short piece of dark fiction set in a Pittsburgh neighborhood (or near suburb). It's a formula that New York indie publisher Akashic Books has applied to a few dozen cities worldwide since the first anthology in the series, Brooklyn Noir, appeared in 2004.
In Pittsburgh Noir, edited by local mystery writer Kathleen George, results are mixed -- not every story will be a winner in this sort of operation -- but on the whole satisfying. The book's most notable success lies in how the authors represent different views of the city, geographically and culturally. There are Fox Chapel moments, McKees Rocks moments, Homewood moments -- not generic Pittsburgh moments.
Water figures prominently throughout. The river is a good place to hide a body, and around here, the river is never far away. Three stories (in a section titled "Three Rivers") use a river as a chief plot device; another ends in a creek. Just as waterways have shaped the region's political and economic history, they're important to the local murder industry, it would seem.
Murder is, of course, central to many of the stories. Of the 14 stories anthologized, only five avoid death entirely (though elsewhere, not every death is necessarily intentional, or even real). Terrance Hayes gives us death precipitating psychological crisis. Paul Lee provides murder gone unpunished. Nancy Martin presents murder on the marina. Lila Shaara writes of death wrapped up in sex.
Perhaps because we're so used to fictionalized violence and death -- in general and in this book -- the most stark and troubling images in Pittsburgh Noir mark stories that contain neither, at least in the traditional sense. The post-war trauma of K.C. Constantine's "When Johnny Came Shuffling Home" -- set, like much of his fiction, in McKees Rocks -- burns with realism. Carlos Antonio Delgado's "Far Beneath," a Morningside-set tale of childhood moral corruption, provides the book's most sustained squirm-inducing description, with its matter-of-fact (and naive) first-person narration.
Meanwhile, Shaara's "Atom Smasher" falls a bit flat: It's realistic and character-driven, but lacks the tension to keep it interesting. Kathryn Miller Haines' "Homecoming," another post-war piece, also comes up slightly short -- it ends up feeling sad, but not horribly dark, the theme of alienation and displacement treated with perhaps too soft a hand. (Both returning-soldier narratives are set after World War II, but parallels will strike a contemporary audience faced with its own population of sometimes troubled, and often neglected, veterans.)
The standout selections look beyond formula, and trust the reader to follow tales with some subtlety to them. Tom Lipinski's "Key Drop" is a detective thriller with few of the conventional tools of the detective thriller -- there's no murder, no heist, no international conspiracy. In fact, in the end, it's tough to know whom to pity and whom to despise. Poet Hayes' "Still Air, " the most beautiful of the stories, if not the most gripping, simultaneously takes on murder and the gentrification wars of East Liberty (and "East Side"). Stewart O'Nan's Bloomfield-set "Duplex" hits especially close to home, at least for those of us who have put in time in a Bloomfield duplex.
Reginald McKnight's "Overheard," set in Homewood, serves as a curious and satisfying coda; an eavesdropped tale of perhaps-murder, it's disorienting but not overly abstract. It sums up Pittsburgh Noir at its best: a set of varied and novel approaches to dark fiction that give a taste of a specific place in Pittsburgh, without trying too hard to pander or take advantage of ages-old Pittsburgh media tropes.
And even at its weakest moments, Pittsburgh Noir is still decent reading. Who doesn't want to hear about someone losing their mind, or their life, and think -- "Hey, I know where that happened!"
PITTSBURGH NOIR event with editor Kathleen George and Stewart O'Nan, Terrance Hayes, Tom Lipinski and more. 6:30 p.m. Thu., June 9. Barnes & Noble, Waterworks Mall. Free. 412-781-2321
Pittsburgh Noir excerpt: from "A Minor Extinction," by Paul Lee
They had earlier found Levi smoking by himself in the dark near his house, the three boys crudely flush with purpose and wildness after four-wheeling through Mount Oliver in Nathaniel's truck. It was still an incipient spring, a night when the wind seemed to be cutting in from the expired winter. They had forced Levi into the backseat like mobsters and sped to Riverfront Park, bloodying his nose along the way, with Isaac nearly singing about how they would beat him unconscious and leave him by the river to freeze. But Mark later understood that he was impelled toward the scene of Levi's death not by the exuberance of adolescent violence but by the force of that ruthless current, which proved strong enough to sweep up the other three boys along with him, strong enough even to deliver Levi's older brother to his fate eight years later.