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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Black Noir’s Appeal Is No Mystery

Otto Penzler captures great African-American storytelling

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The state of book editing appears precarious. Editor Otto Penzler's Black Noir (Pegasus), an anthology of "dark" fiction by black American writers, spans more than 100 years, and much of it is great. But look out for punctuation, formatting and spelling mistakes, including the embarrassing instance of a gun's report printed as "retort."

Six of this book's 15 stories also appeared in Paula L. Woods' 1995 anthology, Spooks, Spies, and Private Eyes: Black Mystery, Crime, and Suspense Fiction of the 20th Century. For brevity's sake, I'll deal with stories unique to this volume.

The volume opens with Edward P. Jones' "Old Boys, Old Girls," a prison-to-freedom story from 2004. Jones' story follows a convict from the harrowing dominance games of lockdown to a frightening, humbling return to community. It's hopeful and poetic, but still realistic.

Black Noir's oldest story is an abridgement of Charles W. Chesnutt's elegant piece "The Sheriff's Children," first published in 1889. Plenty of black American detective stories deal with socially unaccepted blood ties; this one sets the standard. A white sheriff in North Carolina stands his ground against a racist mob, and in the bloody ending the message is clear: The white man has only begun to pay the price for the holocaust of slavery. The remarkably neutral narration and dialogue allow the reader's emotions to dominate the reading experience.

Another standout is "John Archer's Nose," by Harlem Renaissance man Rudolph Fisher, first published in 1935. Fisher revels in the delight of having black policemen and doctors as plausible subjects, and his two-man team's mastery over a family of defiant murder suspects is outrageously funny. "John Archer's Nose" is also notable for Fisher's implicit disgust with superstition and snake-oil salesmen.

Two other stories in Black Noir take turns attacking spiritual phonies; one is contemporary novelist/screenwriter Gar Anthony Haywood's previously unpublished "The First Rule Is," which zeroes in on C.C., an embittered former high-school basketball star years after a career-ending gunshot wound, still fixated on an old rival now at the peak of public adulation. The star player is parodied as a slick, smiling self-promoter. Haywood forces the reader to confront C.C.'s ultimately self-destructive hatred by making his star player so slimy that readers have to share some of C.C.'s ire.

Two stories in Black Noir employ the now-classic black mystery motif of class/status reversal. One is physician/novelist Robert Greer's previously unpublished "Oprah's Song," in which Greer pits two slightly haunted detectives against a legion of corrupt politicians and their hired thugs to find the killer of a gifted, outrageous performance artist. Corruption and danger hang in the air like the smell of a swamp.

Mystery master Chester Himes is represented by "Strictly Business," first published in 1942. In Himes' blunt, plainly worded depiction of a hired thug who feels only for himself, the tale is casual, slangy, funny in a deliberately shallow sense, and ultimately terrifying.

Walter Mosley, the man who injected detective fiction with a megadose of black consciousness, concludes Black Noir with "Black Dog," from his 1997 collection of Socrates Fortlow stories, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. Socrates, a beaten-down ex-con, dares the reader to love him. It's a radical idea, but Mosley loves a challenge, and in "Black Dog" he rises to it:

Socrates just wanted to help. As far as he was concerned the white man broke his own nose.

Who can top storytelling like that?