Cleveland Noir (Akashic Noir Series)
“The tales that populate Cleveland Noir are essentially about the haves, the have-nots, and the never-wills.”
“I write love stories.” So said renowned crime writer James M. Cain about his work, and the quotation is invoked in Cleveland Noir, the latest entry in the venerable Akashic “city noir” anthology series. “These stories are no different,” suggest editors Michael Ruhlman and Miesha Wilson Headen in their introduction. “The plots of virtually every one teeter explicitly on this fulcrum: erotic love, romantic love, love of a brother, love of a son or daughter or a mother, love of baseball, love of the church.”
Strictly speaking, all of the above is true, but the tales that populate Cleveland Noir are essentially about the haves, the have-nots, and the never-wills. Even the titles for each sub-section of stories suggest division, whether you’re rich or downtrodden, lucky or damned: “City Center,” “Outliers,” “The Trendy,” “The Heights.”
Fittingly enough, the closest the collection comes to a true love story is Paula McClain’s opening “Love Always,” in which an almost-romance between two women on the skids gets cut short by crime and tragedy. Otherwise, Cleveland Noir sticks to the tried-and-true pillars of noir: revenge, greed, and sexual perversity, topped with generous helpings of death.
As is de rigueur for the series, each story is informed by life in the city’s individual districts. Parma is characterized by casual racism and homophobia as a gay half-Native American teen is abused in Sam Conrad’s abrasive, unsettling “Jock Talk.” And while Tremont might be labeled as an up-and-coming community, no amount of gentrification can provide protection to the protagonist in D.M. Pulley’s “Tremonster” when she stumbles upon past crimes in the hood.
The past casts shadows over multiple stories, including Susan Petrone’s “Silent Partner,” in which an investigation into the death of a Cleveland baseball player 50 years in the past leads to a sinister explanation of why the New York Yankees have been so dominant in the intervening decades (and to a Clevelander, what could be more odious than the Yankees?).
A similar blast from the past is the backbone of Dana McSwain’s spooky entry “Bus Stop,” in which a journalist is visited by the spirits of murdered girls on the anniversaries of their deaths. In these stories, curiosity kills the cat and the investigator: venturing too close to the truth usually results in a not-so-gentle shove into Lake Erie, or a lead pipe to the head.
Other stories trace more comfortable noir outlines. Ruhlman’s contribution “The Ultimate Cure” follows the playbook to a tee, as two hard-luck loners entangle themselves in a twisted web of lust, greed, and murder. Abby L. Vandiver’s “Sugar Daddy” tracks a crooked cop into rough-and-tumble East Cleveland as he helps a former girlfriend bury a body, only to be hit by consequences for past misdeeds. A similar misdeed leads to comeuppance in Angela Crook’s “Bitter,” in which the run-down neighborhoods of Hough are the setting for a sister’s revenge against the woman responsible for her brother’s death.
Noir has been adopted and adapted so often that originality can be hard to find, and most of the stories in Cleveland Noir come off as a bit too familiar, despite their slick execution: broken homes and families, deceits and coverups, a patsy getting his unjust desserts, a scammer discovering she’s been scammed, as is the case in Headen’s “The Book of Numbers.”
The more memorable entries shy away from these clichés, and play with form: Jill Bialosky’s “Mock Heart” is a literal poem to Cleveland, an ode to seediness and despair, while Daniel Stashower’s acerbic “Lenny, But Not Corky” is shaped as an interview, with a local troubadour reminiscing about the hippie days of his youth while being interrogated about a young man’s disappearance, and his possible involvement—a fitting musical tip of the hat to the town that houses the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The best entries in the collection shy away from pat scenarios entirely. J.D. Belcher’s “The Alderman Affair” eases itself into wintry paranoia as a PI-in-training and her quarry partner up under unusual circumstances, and Alex DiFrancseco’s “The House on Fir Avenue” muses on karma, as a man who’s lost his home torments the new owner by sabotaging the house, only to see his efforts paid forward in negative fashion.
And then there’s Mary Grimm’s “Over the Hill,” in which an obsessed lover searches high and low for his woman on Halloween night—a woman who may actually be a witch. Gassed up on grungy, gritty storytelling, the tale is both a vivid journey into Cleveland’s Flats, a neighborhood perched on the side of a cliff (and imminent disaster), and a love story where no one dies, but sex feels an awful lot like death. Moments like these remind us why Akashic’s noir series are enjoyable and sometimes surprising; James M. Cain himself would have approved.