Philadelphia Noirby Carlin Romano
"It took long enough for Akashic's noir series to get to Philly. Now that it has, compiled under the shadowy auspices of Inquirer literary critic/West Philly native Carlin Romano, the fun/b>/i>
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"It's a collection enhanced by an unerring sense of place . . . that will please the most discriminating lovers of the dark side."
"It took long enough for Akashic's noir series to get to Philly. Now that it has, compiled under the shadowy auspices of Inquirer literary critic/West Philly native Carlin Romano, the fun begins."
--Philadelphia City Paper
Includes brand-new stories by: Diane Ayres, Cordelia Frances Biddle, Keith Gilman, Cary Holladay, Solomon Jones, Gerald Kolpan, Aimee LaBrie, Halimah Marcus, Carlin Romano, Asali Solomon, Laura Spagnoli, Duane Swierczynski, Dennis Tafoya, and Jim Zervanos.
Carlin Romano, critic-at-large of the Chronicle of Higher Education and literary critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer for twenty-five years, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2006 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, cited by the Pulitzer Board for "bringing new vitality to the classic essay across a formidable array of topics." He lives in University City, Philadelphia, in the only house on his block.
Seventeen unsettling new stories in a dark-side collection that will brighten your day.
Philly writers, Philly locales. But how is Philly noir different than all other noir? In his introduction to this collection of previously unpublished stories, editor Romano, longtime literary critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, argues that Philly is blue collar, as is its brand of creepiness: "In Philadelphia we do ordinary noir—the humble killings, robberies, collars, cold cases that confront people largely occupied with getting by." His own shuddery story helps makes the case. In "Cannot Easy Normal Die," the issue is as everyday as house-hunting, except who really knows what's buried in a certain backyard? In Aimee LaBrie's "Princess," a humble pug dog gets to foil a homicidal maniac. "Swimming," Halimah Marcus's chiller, centers on the bitter aftermath of an adulterous relationship, and what's more commonplace than that? In Meredith Anthony's "Fishtown Odyssey," rampant self-interest outlasts run-of-the-mill decency, which, unhappily, is often enough the way it goes. And so on. It's a collection enhanced by an unerring sense of place, with no clinkers, and at least half-dozen entries that will please the most discriminating lovers of the dark side.
Following Lone Star Noir, Twin Cities Noir, Wall Street Noir and 40 more, another excellent entry in Akashic's long-running noir-by-neighborhood series.
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IntroductionGreene Country Crime Scene
C'mon, Ben Franklin and noir? The Framers and noir? George I-Cannot-Tell-a-Lie Washington and noir? According to the national mythology, and even our local creation tale about William Penn's "Greene country towne," Philadelphia Blanc makes a more sensible title for a volume of local stories than Philadelphia Noir. This, after all, is where all of America's greatness and goodness and idealism began.
Betsy Ross dangling a cigarette from her lip? Abigail Adams two-timing John with a local punk?
You could say that was then, and this is noir.
But you'd be wrong. Read any of the eighteenth-century scholars who love colonial Philadelphia more than their own parents or kids, and you know that some pretty bad defecation was going down in our cobblestoned streets back then, and it got even worse.
By the 1830s and '40s, Philadelphia's antiblack and anti-Catholic riots guaranteed a steady number of bashed heads and windows. Readers innocent of the real Philadelphia may want to consult historian Gary Nash's fine First City (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), and learn of our antebellum street gangs, "the Moyamensing Killers, Gumballs, Bloodtubs, Scroungers, Hyenas, Bedbugs, Swampoodle Terriers, Nighthawks, Flayers, and Deathfetchers."
You've only heard of the Phillies?
When local officials expanded Philadelphia in 1854 by merging its two square miles with the hundreds of small towns around it—creating the 135-square-mile municipal behemoth it remains today—the move came largely out of desperation, the need to control a crime scene gone wild.
And how far we've come! Nash's colorfully named gangs are the spiritual ancestors of today's "flash mobs"—hundreds of no-goodnik, dumb-as-a-doornail teens (with, we suspect, not-so-hot grades), who congregate somewhere in Center City at the flash of a global Twitter message and start beating the crap out of normal passersby.
Yes, it sometimes happens in Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love, not far from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.
America's first great city, first capital, and first industrial metropolis contained from the beginning the mix of poor workers and elite culture, of ethnic enclaves and religious intolerance, of easy skullduggery and flesh-pot possibilities, that led Lincoln Steffens in 1903 to famously rule it "corrupt and contented." Colonel William Markham, deputy governor of Pennsylvania from 1693 to 1699 (and William Penn's cousin), was the first official on the take, hiding pirates at one hundred pounds a head, including Captain Kidd himself. We've had many similarly devoted public servants since.
In the early innings of the twenty-first century, Philadelphia needs no PR help as a noir town, not when some of our own best and brightest call us "Filthydelphia" (and not just for the residents who take jump shots at garbage cans and miss). Remember Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981), with John Travolta smoothly recording vehicular murder on Lincoln Drive? And Witness (1985), with its affront to Amish decency in the Men's Room of 30th Street Station?
Creepy stuff happens here. The city's attractions, aside from Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center, and standard guidebook stuff, include more dope joints, brothels, larceny lairs, and related dens of iniquity than Fodor, Frommer, and Fielding could handle even if they pooled coverage (that is, if they ventured into the alternate reality that bourgeois travel guides consider hands-off). Actually, even some of the guidebook stuff is pretty dark. Try the Mutter Museum, with that tumor extracted from President Grover Cleveland's jaw, the liver shared by the original Siamese twins. How about the barely furnished Edgar Allan Poe House, with the basement from "The Black Cat"?
Philadelphia noir is different from the mood, the sensibility, the dimensions, of noir encountered in more glamourous American cities. With the national spotlight long since gone—the federal government fled to Washington, the national media navel-gazing in New York, the glitter of the movies permanently in L.A. (even if M. Night Shyamalan fights for our spookiness)—we don't live a noble, elevated kind of noir. In D.C., that dead body may belong to a senator. In New York, the gumshoe following the scent may find himself suddenly face-to-face with international intrigue. In Philadelphia, we do ordinary noir—the humble killings, robberies, collars, cold cases that confront people largely occupied with getting by.
How, after all, would you expect normal Philadelphians to operate when this way lies the house where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration, and that way offers some smelly street bum doing his business on the sidewalk? We negotiate our lives between Philadelphia Blanc—the city with more higher-ed institutions than any in the country, a sterling concentration of medical and pharmaceutical professionals, an arts tradition that boasts the nation's oldest theater, an exhaltation of delicate virtuosi at the Curtis Institute of Music—and Philadelphia Noir. In the latter town, a Starbucks barista gets beaten to death on the subway for sport, a lawyer gets gunned down at his regular ATM machine, and two Chinatown officials bite the dust when a maniacal speeder barrels into them by the Immigration Services building.
You can get cut or smashed at any moment in Philadelphia—see Duane Swierczynski's taut "Lonergan's Girl," or Aimee LaBrie's caustic "Princess." It's a city where pretend glamour falls apart fast, as in Jim Zervanos's sly "Your Brother, Who Loves You," a city where the frustrated tumble into bad choices like Laura Spagnoli's Beth in "A Cut Above." (Readers who follow Philadelphia's tabloid tales will recognize familiar elements in Zervanos's slumming TV news anchor, and Spagnoli's credit-card swiping couple.)
Violent crimes in Philadelphia often prove matter-of-fact and of the numbskull sort—the kind of feats by fabulous losers that the narrator of Diane Ayres's wry "Seeing Nothing" deals with, that Dennis Tafoya's Jimmy Kelly profits from in "Above the Imperial." The saddest kind resemble a type of destiny, one captured in the desperation of Solomon Jones's breakneck "Scarred," Asali Solomon's subtle "Secret Pool," and Keith Gilman's tragic "Devil's Pocket," where good deeds do not go unpunished. It doesn't matter, in Philadelphia, whether you're Irish or Italian, Jewish or Black, Latino or Polish, Korean or a hundred other things. It won't help if you think salvation lies in escape to the privileges of the Main Line, as does Meredith Anthony's wannabe suburbanite in "Fishtown Odyssey," or that safety can be preserved in the quiet deceptions of a bordertown like Narberth, as the shifty psychiatrist of Halimah Marcus's "Swimming" seems to believe. Shit can happen at any time.
Per capita, Philadelphia matches any city, weirdo incident for weirdo incident. But we trump everyone on history. In this volume you'll see that a few top writers who know the city best—the kind who can tell you that Schuylkill means "hidden stream," and that "Mummers" are "people with masks" (okay, with sequins and feathers too)—wind up decades or hundreds of years in the past when asked to channel their inner noirista. Cordelia Frances Biddle's cocky stroller in "Reality," Cary Holladay's eerie bartender in "Ghost Walk," the neutral narrator of Gerald Kolpan's "The Ratcatcher"—all experience the Philadelphia truism that if you think you've got local history under control, you don't.
With apologies, you won't find the obvious here. Having served as literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer for twenty-five years, and written more stories on "Philadelphia literature" than anyone living, I thank my contributors for their very limited references to hoagies, cheesesteaks, water ice, soft pretzels, and waitresses who call their customers "Hon." There's no glimpse of Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin or the rowers by the Waterworks, and only one passing mention of Rocky. Truth is, we don't talk much about those things. We just live our lives.
Carlin Romano Philadelphia, PA August 2010
Excerpted from Philadelphia Noir Copyright © 2010 by Akashic Books. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Carlin Romano: Carlin Romano, critic-at-large of The Chronicle of Higher Education and literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2006, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism, cited by the Pulitzer Board for "bringing new vitality to the classic essay across a formidable array of topics." He lives in University City, Philadelphia, in the only house on his block.
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