Books

Book Review: Providence Noir

Fifteen authors with local connections provide brooding noir tales in new anthology

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A little over a decade ago, the wildly successful Noir series of urban fiction was born in Brooklyn. 

Its “secret sauce” was to take a group of writers who knew a particular city and let them dissect it neighborhood by neighborhood with original noir tales. Noir, lest you’ve forgotten, is typified by those classic black and white films from the ‘40s that concocted wonderfully intricate crime stories, complete with hard-boiled but cynical protagonists and served up heaping portions of moral ambiguity on the side. 

Published by Akashic Books, the series has grown geometrically and has now noir-ed 70 cities from Addis Ababa to Zagreb internationally and domestically from Boston to San Francis.co with another 20 cities in the works. The question isn’t why the publishers picked Providence, but rather why it took so long. To those of us long timers here, we might argue there aren’t many cities more noir-ish than ours. 

Fox Point resident and bestselling novelist Ann Hood (The Knitting Circle) was chosen to edit Providence Noir and selected 14 writers, virtually all with some sort of relationship to Rhode Island and in particular our capital city. And an impressive cadre they are. It starts with Hood herself, who offers a very ‘40s-ish piece of fiction entitled appropriately Under the Shepard Clock that almost screams Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. 

Among the more well known contributors is Bruce DeSilva, a former ProJo reporter who now boasts three successful crime novels, all of which take place often in the dingy alleys and smoke-filled back rooms of Providence. What I loved about his piece was how a skilled news reporter was able to coax a reluctant subject into saying just enough to… well you’ll have to read it for yourself. Then there’s The New York Times bestselling novelist Luanne Rice, who has used Newport for a setting for one of her books. Here she takes us into Fox Point’s tightly knit Portuguese community, but perhaps not exactly where you might expect. Others adding to the noir include two nationally known Rhode Island residents, Robert Leuci (whose life as an undercover detective was chronicled in the movie Prince of the City and has since written half a dozen crime novels himself) and Thomas Cobb (whose novel Crazy Heart was adapted into an Academy Award winning film). 

The settings for the stories take place all over Providence. And while perhaps easily identifiable to us locals, they come with a map for out-of-towners. Cobb’s clever short story, for example, takes place in Providence but at the Triggs Memorial Golf Course. 

The obvious question is what motivated the 15 established authors here to delve deep into their repressed gothic selves to go noir. In some cases it would appear to be just for the fun of it. Peter Farrelly of There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber fame, though a Cumberland boy himself, clearly enjoyed painting a picture of a rather unusual highborn individual named Roger Tenpenny. At 21 he inherited a trust fund that his bankers said, “could support the lives of 100 ne’er-do-wells.” But by the time he reached his 30s and after four divorces, all of the money was back in circulation. The Farrelly wit is up there right in the first paragraphs. When his toney friends ask him what could have ever possessed him to consider a fourth marriage after three painful and expensive strikeouts, Tenpenny quips, “Well I missed the cheating.” 

At a recent book signing at the Brown Bookstore, Hood was holding court accompanied by three of the other authors. As they discussed their work, it was clear the three love the short story and use their Providence roots as launching pads for tales that twist fancifully and unexpectedly for us to enjoy. Marie Myung-OK Lee now teaches at Columbia. But before that, she had taught creative writing for ten years at Brown. So when she describes the lives of four Brown graduate students and the intricate relationships that develop among them, there’s a credibility that keeps us engaged until a somewhat abrupt ending. And then there’s Hester Kaplan who has made a career writing about beautifully rendered adult relationships. An East Side resident and accomplished wordsmith, who counts the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction among her successes, she paints a much edgier relationship between father and son that leads us deep into the waters of ambiguity. My personal favorite was from Amity Gaige, a writer with several books to her credit including Schroder, a New York Times notable book from 2013, who offered her reasons for wanting to be part of the noir project. While acknowledging the subject matter was very much out of her comfort zone, it allowed her to try something new and just let it fly. And fly it does. Her story ends with a raw and unexpected “payback” I never saw coming as a hard-working student from Woonsocket comes to grips with a Brown professor who didn’t do right by her. 

In short, this is a perfect summer read. It’s Providence with an edge, written by 15 writers who know how to shape stories that lead us down unexpected paths of a city that we love. Out of towners may see it as make believe tales of suspense. To most of us, it’s just home.