MysteryPeople International Crime Fiction Review: BELFAST NOIR & SINGAPORE NOIR

 

– Post by Molly

In 2004, Akashic Books published Brooklyn Noir, their first collection of original noir short stories, set in Brooklyn and written by a combination of local authors and writers from all over. Since that time, Akashic has released collections for almost every major American city and region (including, for Texas, Lone Star Noir and Dallas Noir) and, after covering much of the United States, has moved on to collections set in cities around the world.

Akashic’s motto is “Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World.” Some collections profile the fraught and violent underbellies of some of the world’s most prominent centers of tourism and business. Others focus in on the humanity and humor within a place already possessing a reputation for violence. Whatever the setting, Akashic, in their noir series, succeeds admirably at this goal. Akashic releases new collections faster than I can read them, and alas, I am now woefully behind on my world noir anthologies, but two recent releases from Akashic particularly stood out to me: Belfast Noir and Singapore Noir.

Belfast has always had a rather noir reality, but over the past decade or so, Northern Ireland has also become known for an incredible outpouring of noir fiction, dubbed the “new wave” of Irish crime fiction. Belfast Noir draws upon two of my favorite authors from the region in editing the collection: Adrian McKinty, author the Troubles Trilogy and many other novels, and Stuart Neville, author of The Ghosts of Belfast, Collusion, Ratlines, and most recently, The Final Silence, and includes original crime fiction from many more.

McKinty and Neville, as editors of the collection, have crafted a fine introduction, distilling the past several hundred years of bloody history and a relatively recent economic resurgence down to three pages and a minimalist map. They chose to organize the collection into four sections to reflect Belfast’s changing narrative, post-Troubles: City of Ghosts, City of Walls, City of Commerce, and Brave New City. Each section includes stories by authors as varied as the times and city they represent.

It would take far too long for me to write and you to read a description of what I liked about each story, so I’ll describe just a few. “Taking It Serious,” by Ruth Dudley Edwards, tells the story of a young boy whose mental illness leads him to embrace the motto “Free Ireland” to dangerous levels after his uncle spends a little too much time telling his nephew about the glorious old days of the IRA. In “Belfast Punk Rep,” Glenn Patterson teaches us that not only is Belfast the noirest city in the world, but even the punks of Belfast are a bit more hardcore than anywhere else as well. “The Reservoir,” by Ian McDonald, blends ghost story, murder mystery, and cross-generational smack-down at a wedding for a perfect Northern Irish celebration gone awry.

Steve Cavanagh‘s “The Grey” uses electric meters to tell us a story of love, revenge, and consequences, while Claire McGowan, in “Rosie Grant’s Finger,” writes about teenagers reenacting the high drama of the Northern Irish Troubles in a very, very petty way. Eoin McNamee, in “Corpse Flowers,” structures the story of a young girl’s murder entirely through images seen through cameras, a poetic twist on the surveillance state. Each story, layered on top of the rest, provides another nuanced viewpoint with which to construct a portrait of Belfast today – perhaps not a complete portrait, but a beautifully complex and ever-growing one.

Belfast, with its long history of violence and division, and its more recent history of capitalism run rampant, seems to be an obvious setting for Akashic to have chosen. Singapore’s darkness, however, rests a little more below the surface. As S. J. Rozan writes in her story “Kena Sai,” “Singapore, it’s Disneyland with the death penalty. Jay-walking, gum-chewing, free-thinking: just watch yourselves.”

Many of the stories in Singapore Noir structure their narrative around this contrast between appearance and reality, particularly emphasizing the contrast of luxurious and poverty-stricken settings; the corruption and organized crime behind the facade of democratic government; the city of expats and migrants within the city of Singaporeans. Singapore Noir is edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Singapore native and current New Yorker, who describes Singapore as “the sultry city-state,” and if this description brings to mind the cutthroat Italian city states of the Middle Ages, you’re not far off.

The voices included in this collection are as diverse as the residents of Singapore itself. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s story, “Reel,” tells a story of heat and lust set in the kelongs, old fisheries on stilts, while Colin Goh’s tale “Last Time” takes place in the glittering high rises of the city and involves international pop stars, corrupt businessmen, and powerful mafiosos. Simon Tay, writing as Donald Tee Quee Ho, in his story “Detective in a City with No Crime,” tells the story of an ordinary policeman stuck in a world of interchangeable people, where he can aspire only to lust, and never to love.

Philip Jeyaretnam’s “Strangler Fig” uses the natural environment of Singapore to structure a story of obsession and possession, while Colin Cheong’s “Smile, Singapore” uses a murder mystery to represent all of the frustrations of modern Singaporean society, and also fufills Chekov’s adage that if you introduce a gun in act 1, you had better use it by act 3. Each story is more poetic than the last, and Singapore Noir, like Belfast Noir, once again proves that Akashic Books’ noir series is better than any travel guide.


You can find copies of Singapore Noir and Belfast Noir on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

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