I had the intense pleasure of living in Houston for four years this past decade. But my fondness for my time there did not prevent my pleasure reading this collection of noir tales exploring Houston’s fetid underbelly.
I loved it there, and Houston has a better crime rate than, say, Chicago or New Orleans, but this is still a place where the old-fashioned burglar bars on our house were a good idea, where a man was shot in an drive-by a block away from my house, where a body was found in nice, new apartments under construction that marked my neighborhood as “transitioning,” where bodies were occasionally fished out of the bayou that ran a block from our house (sometimes closer).
The copy and intro both include a wonderful, vicious Hunter S. Thompson quote describing Houston as a “cruel, crazy town on a filthy river in East Texas with no zoning laws and a culture of sex, money, and violence. It’s a shabby, sprawling metropolis ruled by brazen women, crooked cops, and super-rich pansexual cowboys who live by the code of the West—which can mean just about anything you need it to mean, in a pinch.” It says something about Texas that the immediate response is to say “hell yeah!” and adopt the quote as a point of pride.
Houston is a big city. I mean really big. Texas is big, but Houston is so big we called the northern exurbs south Dallas. It is appropriate, then, that even before the table of contents the book gives us a map marked with bodies. A couple of which don’t fit on the map, because, again, Houston is really big.
I’m not familiar with every locale. I tried very hard when I lived there to never leave the embrace of 610. There are plenty of stories set a long way from the shiny glass and steel skyscrapers. But I was very interested in the stories labeled as taking place in the Museum District, River Oaks, Downtown, Third Ward, and Montrose. There are stories that take place near my apartment in Upper Kirby and my house in the (greater) Third Ward, that mention old stomping grounds like West Alabama Ice House and Stephanie’s Ice House. Sticking with the geographic theme, the stories are roughly organized by region (complete with faux-realtor-speak). Of course stories can be hard to place. I was disappointed that the Third Ward story only sort of takes place there, but I was delighted to learn the Downtown story takes place in the greater Third Ward area and concerns a previous transition of the neighborhood and the violence that came with it.
Houston is so big a collection like this isn’t enough to get a bead on it. But the collection highlights the diversity of Houston. Less a rich tapestry and more the explosion of life and death revealed by turning a rotting log (Houston has a lot of rotting logs). It’s not just a rich city, but a rich city that still offers opportunity for the 99 percent. It is also a city so rich and mean an empire was murdered in one of its grocery stores. It is a city of grinding heat and humidity. A city of soul-crushing traffic. When they aren’t transporting bodies, the bayous serve as inadequate flood control for a concrete swamp. Occasionally the bayous come for you, with floods that cover half of Houston in slime and oil residue. Rain and flooding are well represented here. The flooding from Hurricane Harvey tends to lurk in the background of these stories.
The stories veer from more literary to more pulp. The mix generally enhances the experience. The more literary stories display some of the worse impulses of literary fiction, but the noir prompt cabins them a bit and the presence of pulpier stories makes them a nice change of pace.
It is a solid lineup overall. There are some lame twists, some stories that are just barely stories (especially crime stories), and too many serial killers. But no short story collection is all winners. The diversity in the stories—all the more impressive given these are original publications—means that you never get too much of a bad thing, and even a story you don’t like is something new and different. Drugs, prostitution, and human trafficking intersperse all the murder.
Houston Noir is decidedly not country noir, and my preferences are open. But I like gritty stories about people just scraping by, and I like stories with a strong sense of place. These stories have both in spades. And I’m hardly the first hillbilly to wind up in Houston. I could have used more stories about people in from the country (“One in the Family,” about someone from Mississippi, fits the bill), but that is a bit of an esoteric request. I was pleased to see apparent supernatural elements pop up in “Xitlali Zaragoza, Curandera.” I complained about the lack of story in some of the stories, but “Photo Album” is one of my favorite stories from the collection anyway.
Akashic Books has been churning out these regional noir collections. After Houston Noir, I will definitely be picking up more. I also have my eye on Alabama Noir (forthcoming), Atlanta Noir, Chicago Noir, Dallas Noir, Detroit Noir, Lone Star Noir, and Pittsburgh Noir.
Table of Contents:
“Tangled” by Anton DiSclafani (Tanglewood)
“One in the Family” by Adrienne Perry (Museum District)
“The Use of Landscape” by Robert Boswell (River Oaks)
“A Dark Universe” by Larry Watts (Clear Lake)
“Xitlali Zaragoza, Curandera” by Reyes Ramirez (Spring)
“Photo Album” by Sarah Cortez (Downtown)
“Where the Ends Meet” by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton (Acre Homes)
“Tolerance” by Tom Abrahams (Third Ward)
“City of Girls” by Leslie Contreras Schwartz (Aldine)
“Mile’s Blues” by Wanjikũ Wa Ngũgĩ (Montrose)
“Happy Hunting” by Icess Fernandez Rojas (North Shore)
“The Falls of Westpark” by Pia Pico (Westpark Corridor)
“Railway Track” by Sehba Sarwar (Lawndale)
“Jaime’s Mother” by Stephanie Jaye Evans (Sunset Heights)
Houston Noir is out now and is available from Amazon.
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I requested and received a review copy of Houston Noir from the publisher.
Tonstant Weader on “Houston Noir” – review.
Chris Manna on “Houston Noir” at Lone Star Literary Life – review.
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4 thoughts on “Fiction: Houston Noir, edited by Gwendolyn Zepeda”
Oh, this sounds right up my dark alley. Not only do I like to read collections (anthologies) because of the short element, and the sheer variety of work usually included, but because you get such a varied snapshot of people and places too, because of the authors. And yeah, not everything works in a collection, but as a whole, if it balances out, then no one’s complaining.
Got this one, and the others you mentioned, in my sights! Thanks for covering this one.
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They really did balance each out well. Which has to be at least some part luck and some part canny selection of contributors by the editor. I am now realizing that almost all of the short fiction collections I’ve read in the crime fiction space are single-author collections (one by Elmore Leonard, one by Daniel Woodrell, one by Bonnie Jo Campbell, a few by Ron Rash). I need to keep an eye out for more multi-author collections beyond these Akashic Books collections.
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I’ll be watching for your reviews to get a hint of what to look for. Meanwhile, I need to check out some variants of noir. Oh, and I see there is a 40-50s Crime fiction anthology out too. That should be interesting.
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