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In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Henry Miller tosses off a hard-bitten assessment of the City on the James: "I would rather die in Richmond somehow," he writes, "though God knows Richmond has little enough to offer." As editors, we like the dying part, and might point out that in its long history, Richmond, Virginia has offered up many of the disparate elements crucial to meaty noir. The city was born amid deception, conspiracy, and violence.
In 1607, after Christopher Newport paddled up the river that would one day be the city's lifeblood, he installed a wooden cross at the future site of Richmond, claiming the area for England. The local Powhatan rightly perceived the symbolism in his act, but Newport, with the aid of flattery and gifts, convinced them that the cross indicated friendship, not conquest. His lie, soon revealed for what it was, led to conflict-not only between settlers and Native Americans, but also among the settlers themselves. Within two years, a second English expedition, excited by skirmishes with the Powhatan, attacked an exploratory party led by John Smith (yes, that John Smith). When Smith retreated, the Powhatan besieged the unruly colonists once more and killed some number of them. Smith returned, calmed the natives, arrested the English ringleaders, and put them in the stocks. He then forced the remaining men to take up residence in a Native encampment at the site of Newport's cross. The men revolted, freeing the conspirators and abandoning the site. At that point, Smith gave up, but famously noted in his journal that he'd found no place so pleasant in all of Virginia as that site of consternation and bloodshed. (Oh, and then he was horribly burned in an accident.)
Four centuries later, as Clay McLeod Chapman makes clear in his Belle Isle story, you can't wander far in Richmond without being reminded by some cast-iron marker that this is where history happened-here's the church where Patrick Henry declared, "Give me liberty or give me death," here's the factory that forged cannonballs and shot during the Civil War, here's the row of warehouses that churned out America's tobacco (lately they've gone condo), here's the site of the Negro (read: slave) cemetery, now paved over into a desolate parking lot. Richmond is a city of statues and monuments to the past-Confederate generals mostly. Occasionally you'll come across something odd, but never anomalous-a statue of tennis player Arthur Ashe, a statue of dancer Bojangles Robinson. Yes, history happened in Richmond, and so did crime, malfeasance, and cruelty. That's because it's hard to have the former without the latter. Richmond may be steeped in history, but its residents can seem as ambivalent about that fact-or even ashamed of it-as they are proud.
Sure, Edgar Allan Poe spent a good part of his life in Richmond, and even went so far as to credit it with shaping his identity, as Pir Rothenberg's story in this volume might remind us. ("I am a Virginian," Poe wrote, "at least I call myself one, for I have resided all my life, until within the last few years in Richmond.") Sure, two U.S. presidents lie buried in the hallowed ground of the city's Hollywood Cemetery. (It's also home to the grave of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, as Clint McCown's tale playfully and darkly points out.) Sure, Thomas Jefferson spent a lot of time in Richmond as governor of the Commonwealth; he was even the architect of its beautiful Capitol building. But Jefferson had to run for his life from Richmond when the British came rolling through during the Revolutionary War; later he found himself put on trial for treason and cowardice by none other than Patrick Henry (yes, that Patrick Henry.)
During the nineteenth century, the city was a-crawl with slingshot- and shotgun-toting gangs-the 4th Street Horribles, the Bumtowners, the Butchertown Cats, and so on-who preyed on shopkeepers and pedestrians and warred with each other. These groups were forebears of the drug gangs that are very much active in Richmond today, and whose presence here in the 1990s earned the River City the distinction of Murder Capital of the United States-a reputation further buoyed by the presence of the Southside Strangler, the first serial killer ever to be executed following a conviction based on DNA evidence. In Richmond, as in many of America's great cities, history is a mixed bag.
Greater Richmond-which means not only the city itself but also the surrounding suburbanized counties (white flight havens that began to grow in the mid-1950s)-has a population of roughly one million. In other words, Los Angeles it ain't, and the Philip Marlowes and Jake Gitteses of the world might find its palette a little limited. However, Richmond's size hasn't precluded the city from falling victim to its own versions of Chinatown-style political chicanery-like the boardroom schemes and bamboozlements that led to entire sections of Jackson Ward (at the time a poor black neighborhood) and Oregon Hill (at the time a poor white neighborhood) being emptied out and cleaved in two to make way for, respectively, an interstate highway and a commuter bypass. Richmond is well versed in the political buffoonery of the public figure-as Howard Owen reminds us, the city is home not only to a municipal government, but also to the Virginia State Legislature and the governor's office. It's a place where a junkie councilman can get pinched buying heroin in a housing project and state legislators can spend whole sessions attempting to define what kind of underwear shall be illegal to wear, where a historic American figure can torpedo his political legacy simply by signing on as mayor and deciding to pick a fight with the school system.
For all the dark marks on Richmond's past, the darkest and most permanent is its role as hub of the Atlantic slave trade. Richmond was the spot on the James River where traders unloaded their captives to market, and where white Virginians sold enslaved peoples "downriver" to the deeper South. It was the gateway through which the cruel institution was spread into Virginia and much of the country. In present-day Richmond, the monuments to this part of its history are few (the recently erected Reconciliation Triangle statue is a notable exception)-so few that absence, in a way, becomes its own monument. The auction houses of Shockoe Bottom have vanished to time. The extensive slave prison, holding pen, and marketplace in the northwest corner of the Bottom-a site of so much suffering, pain, and heartbreak that captives called it the "Devil's Half Acre"-lies beneath the empty expanse of that aforementioned parking lot. Also buried beneath that asphalt is Gabriel Prosser, the blacksmith who, as Hermine Pinson's story stunningly recalls, was leader of one of the few large-scale slave revolts in American history.
Meanwhile, Richmond has benefited immeasurably from 400 years of African American culture, never more so than in the 1920s and '30s, when the neighborhood of Jackson Ward was home to a cultural zeitgeist that saw it labeled "the Harlem of the South." Jackson Ward was the place where Maggie L. Walker chartered the first African American-owned bank. It was a place where jazz-era legends came to perform-Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and of course Bojangles Robinson, to name but a few. Like any good scene, it was also home to con men, gamblers, and hustlers, a legacy that is celebrated in Robert Deane Pharr's The Book of Numbers-the first and to date best noir treatment of Richmond, and a scathing indictment of the racial boundaries of the 1930s.
These days, Richmond is a city of winter balls and garden parties on soft summer evenings, a city of private clubs where white-haired old gentlemen, with their martinis or mint juleps in hand, still genuflect in front of portraits of Robert E. Lee. It's also a city of brutal crime scenes and drug corners and okay-everybody-go-on-home-there's-nothing-more-to-see. It's a city of world-class ad agencies and law firms, a city of the FFV (First Families of Virginia) and a city of immigrants-everywhere from India, Vietnam, and Africa to Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. It's a city of finicky manners (you mustn't ever sneeze publicly in Richmond) and old-time neighborliness, and it's a city where you think twice about giving somebody the finger if they cut you off on the Powhite Parkway (that's pronounced Pow-hite, not Po-white, thank you very much) because you might get your head blown off by the shotgun on the rack. Richmond has a world-renowned art school, a ballet, a symphony orchestra, and galleries galore; it also has semi-annual NASCAR meets that clog the city's arteries for days. Even in its best moments, it's full of stark and sometimes vast contrasts, a dynamic captured poignantly here in the wonderful story by Dennis Danvers.
Richmond, in its long, complex history, has seen everything America has to offer, and has at times stood for its worst, darkest bits. It is the oldest of those churning urban centers whose simple existence gave birth to America's particular art form of violence, desolation, and hard knocks. It's also a hell of a place to live. We, the editors and authors, love this city. Try standing on a rock in the middle of the James River as the evening sun lights up the tinny but somehow magnificent buildings of downtown. You'll see. It's quite a sight. When you accept a city not only for its strengths but also for its weaknesses, when you realize that the combination of the two is what gives the place true beauty-when, indeed, you recognize that the combination might also make for some very good storytelling-well, that's love. We love Richmond, Virginia. We hope you like it too.
Andrew Blossom, Brian Castleberry & Tom De Haven Richmond, Virginia December 2009
Excerpted from Richmond Noir Copyright © 2010 by Akashic Books. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 29, 2014
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Posted May 5, 2010
This collection of stories based in various Richmond locations was a great read. I bought it as a gift for a friend and ended up reading it cover to cover before I wrapped it for her. It included a great variety of writing styles. Overall it was well written and entertaining. This is an excellent sample of local fiction.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 12, 2010
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Posted December 13, 2010
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