Brooklyn Noir 2: The Classics

The first anthology was a brilliant idea, full of great, original stories. Now that this has expanded into a franchised series (Dublin Noir, Chicago Noir, Baltimore Noir) it’s not nearly as interesting, and this second collection, of reprinted stories, has its moments, but is not nearly as good.

It opens with a peculiar choice, “The Horror At Red Hook,” by H.P. Lovecraft. He’s acknowledged as one of the fathers of modern horror, but what’s not so well known about him is that he lived in Red Hook for a few years. What’s better known, but not usually acknowledged any more than it is about most fantasy writers of his era, was that he was a vicious racist, which comes through loud and clear in this inferior, ugly story. It’s a retread of one of his favorite themes: a decayed old aristocratic family dabbling in secret horrors, told through the eyes of the decent man who tried to figure it all out and is now a half-mad invalid. The story describes Robert Suydam, a scion of an old Dutch family who lives on Martense Street in Flatbush, and his associations with “certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island … unclassified slant-eyed folk who used the Arabic alphabet” who hang around a deconsecrated church in Red Hook.

Following this are two excerpts from novels anyone interested in Brooklyn fiction has already read: Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, along with Thomas Wolfe’s “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” which frankly hasn’t aged well. Irwin Shaw’s “Borough Of Cemeteries,” originally published in 1938, was my only relief in this long patch of retread material, and it’s a lightweight stories about two frustrated cabbies who destroy their cabs in a game of demolition derby outside a bar in Brownsville.

At this point, a third of the way into the book, we reach Carolyn Wheat’s “The Only Good Judge,” a passable mystery obviously written from experience as a public defender in Brooklyn. The story — a three-way version of Strangers On a Train — is more than a little unlikely though, as are the characters. Maggie Estep’s “Luck Be a Lady” is a sorta funny story about a hapless burglar who falls in love with a girl he discovers in a house he’s robbing, and then loses to another person at home in a house they’re both burgling. The stories aren’t bad, but the problem with this anthology is that he’s choosing stories not because they’re good, but because they let him put a dot on his map of Brooklyn in the frontispiece.

Lawrence Block’s “By the Dawn’s Early Light” (Sunset Park, check) isn’t bad, about a lawyer who gets a man off for a murder charge but then finds out in a drunken confession that he did indeed kill his wife and then cause the suicide of one of the Latino kids falsely accused of the crime. So he frames him for killing his girlfriend, who’d killed herself in remorse for helping him frame the kids.

Donald Westlake’s “The Best Friend Murder” is not his best by any means, interesting mainly in its depiction of Park Slope in the 50s as a crappy neighborhood full of impoverished writers, one of whom murders another in the hopes of becoming famous. The investigating detective smells a rat, and convinces another cop to play reporter and tell the kid how uninteresting his story is, at which point he tells the police the truth. But the detective sends him up anyway, infuriated at these two kids wasting lives when he’s worrying constantly about his impending heart attack.

Pete Hamill’s “The Men In Black Raincoats” is a short, evocative story about an IRA man whose past catches up with him. Stanley Ellin’s “The Day of the Bullet” might be the best story here, about two boys in Bensonhurst who have an encounter with a gangster. One moves to Manhattan the next day and thirty years later sees his friend, a “Brooklyn rackets boss,” dead in the front seat of his car in the Daily News. Following that is an excerpt from Last Exit To Brooklyn, concluding with the rape scene, of course, and assigned to South Brooklyn. “The Boys Of Bensonhurst” is a sweet story about a bunch of kids dealing with the impending draft, one of whom kills himself attempting to run over his girlfriend’s thug of an ex-boyfriend with his motorcycle, and “Steelwork” is an empty set of vignettes about the deterioration of a barfly in Bay Ridge.

Overall, an unsatisfying collection, too many stories chosen only for their ostensible settings, padded out with overly obvious choices. Give it a pass, and pick up the original, or bobhowe‘s Coney Island Wonder Stories, instead.

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