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Akashic's 'USA Noir' Takes You Hostage in a Good Bad Way

This new crime anthology's got more swank items than an uptown fence

By Wayne Alan Brenner, 1:00PM, Wed. Nov. 6, 2013

Akashic's 'USA Noir' Takes You Hostage in a Good Bad Way

She walked into my office like a short blond angel making a pitstop on her way to hell.

"Here, Brenner," she said, tossed what looked like some ornamental doorstop in my general direction. "500 words by Wednesday."

The doorstop resolved itself, on landing, into a thick paperback called USA Noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series.

I cocked a gimlet eye at the thing, then at my editor – who was already retreating, her tiny feet beating a staccato tattoo into the cracked linoleum.

"Wednesday?" I said. "What about the Tannhauser manuscript? I'm still stuck in the –"

"No talk," she said, hand on the door's decaying frame. "I'm already late for my lunch with Joseph Gordon-Levitt."

"But, Monica – " I protested.

My editor scowled. "Dummy up and get it done, Brenner," she said. "Wednesday. By noon." And she was gone.

Ah, fuck.

Luckily, it was a good read, the Akashic anthology. I rifled the table of contents, not wanting to start at the first tale and work my way through, not like the rubes do, the dummies you see clogging urban sidewalks in their Cracker Barrel T-shirts and Crocs and getting in the way of real business. I looked for some excuse for ingress, scanning the lines, until I found it: "Phelan's First Case" by Lisa Sandlin, from Akashic's earlier Lone Star Noir collection. The story was set in Beaumont, Texas – all the stories' settings were noted in the TOC – and Beaumont, hell, that's where the city's Chief Inspector Robert Faires was from. Faires was a good guy, one of the best on the force, had stood me to innumerable shots of the Glenfiddich when I'd really needed 'em back in the day. So I'd start with Beaumont, with this Sandlin thing.

Paydirt.

Sandlin's tale of a young PI and his ex-con insinuation of a secretary was engaging as hell. The writing was brisk, the genre style familiar enough – not quite subversive, nowhere near trite. The plot was jake, too, but it was only a hanger for characters – the private dick Phelan and his canny amanuensis Delpha Wade – that you wanted to spend entire novels getting to know. Over too soon, the story, goddammit – as if it were too good to last.

Just like my last three marriages, I thought bitterly, reaching for the bottle of cut-rate scotch I keep in my desk's bottom drawer.

Decided to go high-literary with the next story, read Jonathan Safran Foer's "Too Near Real," had heard good things about this New York kid and his finesse with belles-lettres lingo. Jesus. Another winner. This creepy hinted-at criminal horror wrapped in a compelling exploration of the whole increasingly frangible map/territory paradigm. Unnerving and sublime. Kinda thing makes you know that, OK, you're finally gonna go ahead and read that copy of Everything Is Illuminated that's been sitting on your nightstand since before the cat was spayed.

Figured, after that, best to go with a big-name-thriller author for the next fat morsel of prose. So I bypassed the Joyce Carol Oates (she's in there with "Run Kiss Daddy" from the New Jersey Noir collection), dog-eared Luis Alberto Urrea's "Amapola," and went right for Lee "Jack Reacher" Child's "Public Transportation" that had originally appeared in the Phoenix Noir book alongside the Urrea.

Goddamn.

Gonna have to read all those Reacher bestsellers now, too.

But that'll be after I track down those earlier, individual-region noir anthologies from Akashic. Because the more I devour of this USA Noir mega-anthology – with Maggie Estep's "Alice Fantastic," Reed Farrel Coleman's "Mastermind," the grisly facts of William Kent Kreuger's "Bums," and more, and more – the hungrier I am for this flavor of literature, this bittersweet taste of the human heart in conflict with itself and one of them's got a knife.

So, thanks a million to antho editor and Akashic Books head honcho Johnny Temple for doing such a crackerjack job of overloading my schedule with these dark and dirty pleasures. Yeah. Thanks ever so awfully much, numbnuts.

This fucking Tannhauser manuscript's just gonna have to wait.

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