Noir tales map out the underbelly of Vancouver
There’s something about the city that lends itself to tales soaked in moral ambivalence
The best thing about Vancouver Noiris the fact that Yasuko Thanh, Nathan Ripley and Timothy Taylor are in it. Their writing is worth reading, and original stories can tide fans over until the next novel comes out. (I’m looking at you, Thanh.)
The second-best thing is the table of contents, which adds what part of town the story takes place in, along with its title and author’s name. Settlers have been egregiously bad at storifying the places we live. Highlighting that this story takes place in Kitsilano, that one in Victoria-Fraserview helps put a few marks on a mostly empty literary map of Canada.
Which leads us into the next best thing about this book. Vancouver is the noirest city in the country, and probably one of the noirest in the world. It’s a port city, with its stubbornly ungentrified neigh- bourhoods kicking against one of the world’s craziest real estate scenes, with strong Indigenous and Asian presence as a foundational urban principle, not to mention a history of gruesome crime and political intrigue. We can overlook for the moment that this is the 94th in a series of Noir books from Brooklynbased Akashic Books, and that it’s the third Canadian title, after Montreal (OK) and Toronto (!), and just be glad it exists, and that it will do the work to wrench Vancouver’s identity away from the banality of real estate into something chewy, like literary murder.
Collecting stories under so specific a rubric can be a trap. You don’t want mere emulation, rat-a-tat dialogue you could imagine coming out of Lauren Bacall or Fred MacMurray. But if you’re buying a book of noir, you do want some noir.
Taylor strikes the right balance. He’s got darkness, he’s got dames, he’s got moral ambivalence and double-crosses. But he doesn’t use any of that as a mask for retrograde treatment of gender or race.
It’s a tough brief, and there’s a reason the canon includes only a few good hardboiled writers and noir films. Ripley (aka Naben Ruthnum) imagines an I Know What You Did Last Summer scenario as if it were written for adults, and its twoline ending is all kinds of right. Thanh’s “Burned” gives us a glimpse of what hardboiled writing might have been if it had made real room for women.
The only real competition for Vancouver as Canada’s noirest city is Winnipeg, so I’m hoping that one’s in the pipe.
People walk through a back alley in the downtown eastside area of Vancouver, whose history of gruesome crime and political intrigue is plumbed in Vancouver Noir. Each story is set in a distinct neighbourhood or location.
Vancouver Noir, edited by Sam Wiebe, Akashic Books, 250 pages, $23.95.