The Austin Chronicle

Houston Noir Anthology Explores H-Town Badness

H-Town badness gets the Akashic rundown in a criminally good anthology

Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, July 19, 2019, Arts

Houston, that unforgiving sprawl of urban blight to the south and east of Austin, Texas, has no zoning laws. This is what renders the metropolis a crazy quilt of desecrated wilderness, metastasizing development, and industrial decay. But the reason for so many of that quilt's innumerable stains of blood, for the bright evidence of mayhem saturating its fabric of reality, is nothing less than human nature itself: What a collection of thieves and murderers, our species. What a sad array of moral degradation.

At least, those are the sorts of people you'll encounter in this Houston Noir anthology from Akashic Books. It's part of Akashic's ongoing series of location-specific crime anthologies, and the lives of the denizens of this particular volume are deeply informed by, and are tainted with, the crowded port city that the Astros call home. It's not all thieves and murderers, though, not all about moral degradation. There are shades of gray, of course. The ill-reasoned response to sociopolitical pressures or personal affront. Mitigating circumstances. Wrong place at the wrong time. You know how it can go, right?

But, yes, there's also a hell of a lot of treachery – and the kinds of cruelty that only Homo sapiens see fit to traffic in.

You want a private detective story in which the gumshoe's daily existence is magnitudes bleaker than anything Philip Marlowe had to contend with? Then you'll want to know what happens to alcoholic ex-cop Donovan Ainsworth when his shoddy methods of inquiry help convict a celebrity astronaut of adultery and murder in Larry Watts' "A Dark Universe." Or maybe you'll appreciate the somewhat lighter narrative of Robert Boswell's "The Use of Landscape," a tale that follows the larcenous, bantering, post-college trio of Tariq, Herta, and Cole as they scam a clique of rich kids and decide on killing one of them for continued monetary influx. And you'll consider anew how porous borders can be – borders between nations and borders between the living and the dead – when you follow the exploits of "Xitlali Zaragoza, Curandera" in Reyes Ramirez's demon-haunted part of this anthology.

Oh, there's a lot more to this gripping crowd of stories, and that crowd is peopled by a diversity of cultures and colors and genders and intents, as reported by Adrienne Perry, Wanjiku wa Ngugi, Tom Abrahams, and others. How, you might wonder, can one urban hub embody so much evil on a daily basis? Editor Gwendolyn Zepeda has cannily divided the collection into four separate areas of the city, which only serves to multiply a reader's certainty: Like the sodden sheet covering a much-lacerated corpse, all of Houston is pretty much dripping with crime. Best to experience it, we suggest, only between the covers of this new paperback.

Houston Noir

edited by Gwendolyn Zepeda
Akashic Books, 256 pp., $11.96

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