Originally Published 2012
From Trench Town to Half Way Tree to Norbrook to Portmore and beyond, the stories of Kingston Noir shine light into the darkest corners of this fabled city.
Joining award-winning Jamaican authors such as Marlon James, Leone Ross, and Thomas Glave are two “special guest” writers with no Jamaican lineage: Nigerian-born Chris Abani and British writer Ian Thomson. The menacing tone that runs through some of these stories is counterbalanced by the clever humor in others, such as Kei Miller’s “White Gyal with a Camera,” who softens even the hardest of August Town’s gangsters; and Mr. Brown, the private investigator in Kwame Dawes’s story, who explains why his girth works to his advantage: “In Jamaica a woman like a big man. She can see he is prosperous, and that he can be in charge.”
Together—with more contributions from Patricia Powell, Colin Channer, Marcia Douglas, and Christopher John Farley—the outstanding tales in Kingston Noir comprise the best volume of short fiction ever to arise from the literary wellspring that is Jamaica.
When I pick up one of the Akashic Noir anthologies I am really hoping for two things.
The first hope is that the stories contained in the collection will be interesting and speak to the distinctive aspects of a city such as its people and geography. Something that draws on a culture’s identity and perhaps immerses you so much that you feel you are there when you pick them up.
The second hope is to discover authors that would otherwise not be on my radar. Sometimes there are authors who are working for the first time in this style and genre but you also encounter more seasoned and distinctive voices.
Of the various Akashic titles I have read so far, Kingston Noir does the best job of fulfilling both of those hopes. Every story had its own distinctive voice, use of language and discussed themes and ideas that emerge from and make use of the stories’ settings.
Pleasingly the stories also generally avoid falling into cliche, showing us different aspects of society and in a few cases exploring the way the city has changed over the years. Not all are equally strong but even the less successful stories feel like they have something meaningful and interesting to say and justify the read.
The first section of the collection deals with characters visiting Kingston, exploring their statuses as outsiders in the city. All four stories in this section were interesting and offer quite distinctive voices and perspectives but my favorite here was Tomcat Beretta, a fascinating story that opens with a woman trying to acquire a gun leaving the reader to learn her reasons why.
The second section, “Is This Love?” was, for me, the weakest of the three. These stories are more crime-focused than those in the other two sections but they are also heavily psychological and discuss issues of sexuality and desire. I found this and some of the discussion of social issues to be interesting and of the four tales, Immaculate is by far the most successful.
The final section, “Pressure Drop”, features just three stories though each of them is remarkable in their own way. The first tale, 54-46 (That’s My Number), is a clever tale that follows an investigation into the disappearance of an athlete. As the title suggests there are mathematical elements to this and I found the relationship between the narrator and his math prodigy brother to be quite compelling.
The other two stories, Sunrise and Monkey Man, are heavier reads and end the book on a rather intense note (in spite of the section’s title). The former is a genuinely upsetting read but I think Abani’s story is quite powerful and it is highly successful in exploring how a character’s life will lead up to a moment and a choice. The latter is a crazier story with some dark elements but, once again, I was impressed by how thoughtful the writing is. Certainly nothing here felt unnecessary to the plot and themes that the writers developed.
Now, I suppose I should point out that Kingston Noir will not be for everyone. Triggers abound, particularly in terms of sexual violence, making for some heavy reading at time. Still, the quality of the writing is superb and I was impressed with the diversity of voices and the richness of the themes that this group of writers develop.
Of the various Akashic anthologies I have read so far, I consider this to be by far the most successful and engaging. Thoughts on each of the stories follow…
Part I: Hard Road to Travel
“My Lord” by Kwame Dawes (Portmore)
A man who finds people is asked by his wife to help a woman track down her husband. There are not many surprises to be found here but regardless it is a well constructed and pretty satisfying read that offers some interesting perspectives on life in Jamaica and strong characterizations.
“The White Gyal with the Camera” Kei Miller (August Town)
A superbly structured story about a photographer who comes to Kingston to take photographs of the city at night and encounters the leader of a street gang. The short story follows the course of her six night stay in the city and her relationship to it.
“Tomcat Beretta” by Patricia Powell (New Kingston)
Mita arrives in Kingston seeking to buy a gun. Over the course of the story we learn what she intends to do with the weapon and why. The answers to those questions are interesting and I loved the way the author slowly releases information to the reader throughout the tale while the story builds to a powerful finish.
The best things about these anthologies is that you sometimes find writers whose work you would be interested to explore in more detail and I’d certainly be keen to read more from Powell in the future.
“A Grave Undertaking” by Ian Thomson (Downtown Kingston)
A New Yorker flies to Kingston when he learns that their father has had a heart attack while on vacation. This story is a slower, more ruminative piece that explores our relationship with death and the complexities of relationships and aging. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story is that it is an outsider’s story, presenting a slightly different perspective on Kingston than you get in some of the other stories in this collection.
Part II: Is This Love?
“Immaculate” by Marlon James (Constant Spring)
The corpse of a schoolgirl is found wrapped in an expensive rug in the street under a vehicle having apparently been raped. When this is glossed over in the autopsy report, a policewoman carries out her own investigation.
Most reviews I have read of this book single out this story as one of the highlights of the collection and it is easy to see why. James’ story touches on multiple aspects of Jamaican society including police corruption in the 1990s, issues of class, masculinity and sexuality. The subject matter may upset some but I thought it was addressed pretty thoughtfully and necessary to the themes of the piece.
While I am not sure that it is my favorite story in the collection, it easily stands out from the other stories in this second part.
“Roll It” by Leone Ross (Mona)
A model prepares to walk the runway as part of a show and, we are told, she will die fifteen minutes later. The story explores the character, her relationship with the designer and develops some interesting ideas. The ending feels impactful and earned.
“One-Girl Half Way Tree Concert” by Marcia Douglas (Half Way Tree)
A woman waits in a particular spot opposite a tower each day holding a knife. We hear some of the reasons people imagine for her doing this and see how people respond to her. It is a rather dense and confusing story, though I feel that this is deliberate on the part of the writer, which becomes a little clearer at the very end.
“Leighton Leigh Anne Norbrook” by Thomas Glave (Norbrook)
A man attending the funeral of his murdered sister. This is not the story of a murder however but rather an exploration of that man’s state of mind as he processes his complicated feelings about that death.
I found myself with mixed reactions to this story. I think the character and the situation were fascinating and the exploration of them was powerful but I found the profanity excessive. While at times it does contribute to our understanding of the situation, in some cases it feels purposeless as though it is there to shock or titillate rather than to serve the characters, situation or theme.
Part III: Pressure Drop
“54-46 (That’s My Number)” by Christopher John Farley (Trench Town)
An Assistant Police Commissioner writes to a news website with information about a case that has been highly publicized to correct the record. He describes how he came to be involved in the search for an athlete who has disappeared and how his brother, a chain-toking drop-out math prodigy with a hatred of the police, helps out with the investigation.
This story worked for me on a number of levels, beginning with a moment in which the narrator describes seeing a group of men beating a Rastafarian in an alley only to realize when he gets nearer that they are his colleagues on the force. I also appreciated the use of mathematical concepts and ideas throughout the story and the nice little moment of clarity Farley gives us at the end.
“Sunrise” by Chris Abani (Greenwich Town)
Opening with a woman ringing the police to report the death of a girl and her baby, Abani’s story explores the events leading up to that moment. Given the subject matter it is pretty upsetting reading though I think it is done quite thoughtfully and it touches on some deep themes. The characters are drawn well and given that the story covers an entire lifetime, I think the author does an excellent job of avoiding their story feeling rushed.
“Monkey Man” by Colin Channer (Hughenden)
Arielle returns to Jamaica after several decades away when she is hired by the BBC to record a documentary on the history of dub reggae but an evening out takes a bizarre turn and leads to her meeting a record producer known as the Monkey Man.
It is hard to describe exactly what the story is without spoiling the unexpected twists and turns it will take. I can say that the story takes some very dark and uncomfortable turns but it is also a very creative work and even when I felt sure I knew where Channer’s tale was headed, surprises remained around the corner. Still, the material was dark enough in tone that I definitely feel the need to seek out lighter, fluffier reading to come down from this…