“while clever in conception and interesting with regard to plot, most of these collected tales of noir lack the compression and the meticulous attention to language that are the life and breath of the short story form.”
Genre fiction, with all its attendant strengths and weaknesses, is the order of the day for the 14 short stories collected in Austin Noir. And when it works, it works. An example of noir at its best is “Stunts” by Ace Atkins. The piece centers on an aging, down-on-his-luck stuntman whose combination tribute and fundraiser turns into a real-life shootout.
The protagonist, a fictionalized version of longtime Burt Reynolds stunt double Hal Needham, winds up running into a pair of desperadoes out to collect an unpaid debt. Mayhem ensues, complete with deft references to various Reynolds/Needham collaborations such as Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper as well as classic films like Red River.
Jeff Abbott’s “The Good Neighbor” is another gem that features compelling characters, a unique and fascinating plot, and an ending that is right on the money. “Saving,” by Miriam Kuznets, is cut from much the same cloth. The unfolding of the plot is wrapped up in the relationship between the first-person protagonist and their complex feelings about the antagonist of the piece—who may well be the most fascinating character in the collection.
There is, however, a great deal more of noir present in these pages than there is of Austin, Texas.
In the introduction to the collection the editors provide a short overview of the city’s history, geography, and demographics—a sort of Austin gloss for those unfamiliar with the capital of Texas and its rich and everchanging culture. But outside of that introduction, with the exception of a series of cameo appearances by well-known locales within the city (that generally have not much to do with the crimes perpetrated therein), the beating heart of Austin is largely absent. The vast majority of these noir tales, in short, could be set in any number of other cities and the change in venue would make no difference at all.
One of the few stories that gets the real Austin right is Amy Gentry’s “Stitches.” This character-driven trip through both West Campus and the protagonist’s past poignantly portrays that character’s life experiences in the best place to live in Texas by capturing authentic details—the stars above Barton Springs pool, the co-op scene that is a subculture within a subculture, Guadalupe Street (aka “The Drag”) and its Renaissance Market, the Forty Acres. The true spirit of the city itself, both past and present, becomes an integral part of the conflict driving the narrator to uncover the truth about the disappearance of a long-ago dear friend.
But while clever in conception and interesting with regard to plot, most of these collected tales of noir lack the compression and the meticulous attention to language that are the life and breath of the short story form.