(Akashic Books, 2009)
I’ve been to a lot of places, but I’ve never been to Portland, despite having lived in the Pacific Northwest for most of my life. I’ve been to Ashland once for the Shakespeare festival, but have to admit that I rarely even think of Portland. When I do think of Portland it is usually because I am remembering the Dead Kennedys’ song “Night of the Living Rednecks.” These days I am reminded of Portland when I remember that I’ve been meaning to check out the show Portlandia, which I understand is pretty funny but have never seen. Or I think of the Portland-based singer Luz Elena Mendoza who appears in the recent Portland tourism ads and she’s pretty cute in that commercial. But I understand that Portland has become quite cool of late, a veritable hipster haven. I may be totally off, but I sort of imagine Portland as a more-hip Tacoma. Portland Noir is one in a series of noir short story collections by Akashic books, each centering on a locale and featuring writers from that area, in this case, Portland, Oregon. The idea is intriguing and i really like the idea of exploring noir-style in settings other than the usual L.A. or N.Y.C.
Portland Noir is edited by Kevin Sampsell and features stories by Ariel Gore, Jess Walter, Bill Cameron, Karen Karbo and several others. With sixteen stories in the book, it’s enough to keep you busy and give you a pretty good representative view of Portland’s writing talent. Most of the stories are good and provide a sense of the Portland area. I particularly enjoyed Dan DeWeese’s “The Sleeper,” which, though not a crime story, has a wonderful noir-feel of nocturnal loneliness and desolation. A few of the stories are a little mediocre, though, and failed to make much of an impression on me.
One thing I noticed, though, that many of the stories weaved in the image of Portland being a hip town a little heavy handedly, like I’d be out of place if I wasn’t wearing a vintage concert tee, skinny jeans and horn-rimmed glasses while saying ironic things to my equally hip friend over some kombucha mocha lattes after biking to the coffee joint on my single speed road bike. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but the hipness was just a little self-conscious in some of the stories and I had the impression that Portland has a lot more to offer than that. Sampsell writes in the intro:
Later, in the 1940s and ’50s, the city practically thrived on criminal activities. Speakeasies, brothels, and gambling dens popped up across the downtown area. The police, the district attorney, and local Teamsters were all in bed with the local vice pushers. Portland became known as quite the decadent town, even prompting Bobby Kennedy to wrangle up its main bad guys for a televised Racketeering Committee meeting in 1957. One senator said at the hearings, “If I lived there, I would suggest they pull the flags down to half-mast in public shame.”
Ah, yes. This is the Portland I was hoping to read about. Sin and corruption is far more interesting than lentil loafs and skinny jeans.
The verdict: ★★★✩✩ (3/5 stars) Portland Noir is a good collection of some very good stories and some “just okay” stories. Portland is a setting that is fully ready for the noir treatment, but I would have preferred a more consistent feel that is more tied down to Portland’s history rather than its current hipster-vogue status. Nevertheless, Portland has got some great writers. I’d like to check out the also-available Seattle Noir next (Seattle being described by Sampsell as Portland’s “creepy old uncle,” a more accurate and complementary assessment I could not imagine).