Noir is easier to recognize than to define. The best dictionary definition I found was, “crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.” Portland Noir, then, has a self-explanatory title: it is a collection of short, dark stories that take place in Portland, Oregon. Akashic Books has published a whole series of similar collections set in numerous cities in the U.S. and around the globe.
Reading this book made me want to immediately find a copy of Chicago Noir. Since I’ve never been to Portland, I felt like I was missing out. I was unfamiliar with the neighborhoods and businesses mentioned, and could not judge the accuracy of Portland’s portrayal. It was clear that the city was more than just a setting; Portland is almost another character in many of the pieces.
Despite my ignorance of Portland, I still found the stories very creative and enjoyable. Some of the tales were more traditional noir pieces, with Philip Marlowe-type protagonists and centering around crimes. Other stories had the feel of noir, but might not fit the classic definition.
As with most short fiction collections, the stories vary greatly. Few readers will enjoy every story, but many will enjoy several. Characters include cops and private eyes, drug addicts and prostitutes, murderers and artists, hipsters and activists. Stories involve murder, blackmail, burglary, torture, vandalism, and even a little romance. There is even a comic book style illustrated story, “Gone Doggy Gone” by Jamie S. Rich & Joëlle Jones. Truly, this book has something for every noir fan.
I felt deep disdain for the narrator of the opening story, “The Clown and the Bard,” by Karen Karbo, in which a sexist low-life gets away with killing his ex-girlfriend. But,I was captivated by the next story, “Julia Now,” by Luciana Lopez, in which a woman becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to a previous tenant of her home. I was strangely captivated by “The Sleeper” by Dan DeWeese, a wandering tale of a newspaper delivery man with a possible substance abuse problem. “Virgo” by Jess Walter is a surprising, and surprisingly funny, story about a disgruntled newspaper employee who alters the horoscopes to harass his astrology-believing ex-girlfriend. The narrator is completely unlikable, yet laugh-out-loud funny:
We’d had the same old fight, with the same stale grievances Tanya had been lobbing at me for three months, almost since the day I moved in: Blah, blah, stalled relationship; blah, blah, stunted growth; blah, blah, I worry that you’re a psychopath…
“Burnside Forever” by Justin Hocking–which opens with the two-word sentence, “Fuck Hawaii.”–reminded me strongly of Michael Hornburg’s novel Bongwater, which is also set (mostly) in Portland. “People Are Strange” by Kimberly Warner-Cohen, is a disturbing story about a woman determined to track down her missing identical twin sister. I’d hate to ruin the twist, but know this: Happy endings are rarely found in noir.