Sydney Noir is the fourth collection of short stories I have read from Akashic Books having previously reviewed collections set in Prague, Moscowand Marrakech. While I have found that the stories in these collections are darker than I usually enjoy, I love the window these offer into other cultures and their own crime literature scenes.
This collection is based on the city of Sydney in Australia and some themes quickly establish themselves: almost all of the stories here touch on either sexuality or drugs. It is probably the most graphic of the four collections and readers should be prepared that many of the stories touch on some subject matter that some will find pretty heavy and upsetting.
In spite of that though I felt that the standard of the stories was generally very high and only a couple missed the mark for me. The strongest section is the third which is titled Criminal Justice with stories focused on exploring the lives of criminals. These stories were the ones that most clearly evoked a sense of place for me.
Slow Burn is probably my favorite story in the whole collection and I found it to be the most mysterious. It opens by introducing us to a retired police officer who is fishing next to a man he has spent twenty years planning to destroy. In the course of the story we learn what he did to warrant this and follow as he executes his plan. A really solid, character driven tale that is effective without the need for dramatic twists or revelations.
The first section, Family Matters, is a little less even though it does contain some really interesting stories. The Birthday Present packs the punchiest ending in the collection while In the Dunes is a deeply emotional story that I really connected with. I was a little less impressed with Good Boy, Bad Girl by John Dale who also edited this collection as I felt it had few unexpected moments while I found In the Court of the Lion King hard to enjoy though, in fairness, I am never much of a fan of prison noir.
Which leaves the second section, Sex and the City. As you might guess from the title, this is the most explicit section of the collection though it is also one of the most diverse. The standout story is Leigh Redhead’s The Transmutation of Sex, which is likely the only crime story I’ll ever read based around a work by Napoleon Hill. Not comfortable reading but it has that compelling “is it going there” factor that made it hard to put down and I felt Redhead had a very clear image of who her characters are. Others apparently loved The Patternmaker but I found it a pretty seedy and predictable read.
This collection is not going to be for everyone but I think it is one of the most consistent I have read from Akashic so far. That consistency in quality though is matched by a consistency of theme so this may work better as a collection you dip into rather than the sort you devour in a single sitting.
I have a bad habit of checking out more books than I can ever read from the library and the Akashic Noir series are often among those that I intend to read but keep returning when they fall due with a commitment that next time I’ll finally try one.
Well, next time came and given the particular city chosen I couldn’t resist making sure I got around to reading it. Prague Noir is a collection of stories from a country that didn’t really have a tradition of noir or even mystery fiction prior to the fall of Communism as the excellent introduction points out.
What we have then are some intriguing stories grouped into loose sections based around theme. Many, but not all, focus on the location or aspects of the Czech historical experience but there are a few more traditional detective stories here too.
Story-by-story comments follow but I would pick out Amateurs, The Magical Amulet, All the Old Disguises and Olda No. 3 as my favorites from each of their respective sections. I can also say that I will probably make more of an effort to make sure I read the next Akashic Noir collection I check out.
Part I: Sharp Lads “Three Musketeers” by Martin Goffa (Vyšehrad)
The collection opens with this story about two men meeting after a number of years. The narrator has a grievance against his companion but at first we are not sure what it may be.
Scenes from the past are inserted at points into that conversation, allowing our understanding to build towards the story’s punchy conclusion. It’s a great way to start the collection as I was surprised by the way it resolves and certainly conveys a sense of place.
“Amateurs” by Štěpán Kopřiva (Hostivař)
This is one of those stories that’s hard to discuss without spoiling where it’s going though I don’t think the resolution is necessarily surprising. The setting is a large-scale marijuana greenhouse operation run by the Vietnamese.
While I think the twist is quite clear, I found the execution to be quite satisfying and feel that the title ends up being quite clever as it could refer to several people within the story.
“Disappearances on the Bridge” by Miloš Urban (Charles Bridge)
The Charles Bridge has been fitted with some new high resolution cameras designed to help the Police monitor the flow of pedestrians and observe pickpockets. The technology is being demonstrated to the head of the division when the technician notices that a young woman wearing a striking red hoodie has disappeared while standing in front of a statue. The officers decline to investigate so he rushes out to look for himself before promptly disappearing near the same spot. Finally one of the officers springs into action and goes in search of the technician only to find himself vanishing as well.
I was quite enjoying this and wondered where it was headed but I felt the answers were a little too fantastic. It all takes a rather violent turn at the end and while I appreciated an element of the resolution, I felt it didn’t quite live up to its striking premise.
“The Dead Girl from a Haunted House” by Jiří W. Procházka (Exhibition Grounds)
This story details an investigation over the course of a few hours into the death of a young woman in a haunted house at the fair.
Procházka is playing with some interesting ideas and creates a suitably gruesome crime scene but I didn’t care much for his habit of referring to characters by pop culture pseudonyms and the ending in which the sleuth gathers all the suspects in one place feels out of place with a story of this type.
Part II: Magical Prague
“The Magical Amulet” by Chaim Cigan (Pankrác)
Set in the 1950s, this story involves a cousin turning up in search of a family heirloom that supposedly has magical powers. It may initially be hard to see where the mystery comes in but things do become clear as the story is developed. It’s a curious piece, reflecting the experiences of the Czech Jewish population during the Second World War and the decade that followed, and I think it raises an interesting question about whether an actual crime is committed.
“Marl Circle” by Ondřej Neff (Malá Strana)
I couldn’t get into this story at all. An excavation and reconstruction is taking place at the former Jesuit Palace near St. Nicolas Cathedral. A workman is discovered dead, a jackhammer having penetrated his chest. There are very heavy paranormal elements here with little sense of mystery. I found the whole thing too much of a diversion from my normal tastes but it may have appeal to those who like the ideas of secret histories and the like.
“The Cabinet of Seven Pierced Books” by Petr Stančík (Josefov)
A story that draws on the idea of the Golem and that once again features some heavy mystical or paranormal content. It does have a wonderful sense of setting however and I appreciated the cleverness of its killer’s motive and the story that is worked around it.
Part III: Shadows of the Past
“The Life and Work of Baroness Mautnic” by Kateřina Tučková (New Town)
This story kicks off the third section of the book which showcases stories in which the historical experiences of the city play an important role in the narrative. This centers on the fate of a house that has fallen into disrepair in the Soviet years and follows the fate of the house and its inhabitants over a number of decades.
I think that this is an interesting approach and it does deal more directly with the Soviet era than many of the other stories in the collection but for all its historical scope, I didn’t engage particularly with the characters or this scenario.
“All the Old Disguises” by Markéta Pilátová (Grébovka)
A superb, economical story about a man’s return to post-Communist Prague at the invitation of his friend’s grandson. There is some genuine mystery here about what that grandson wants from him but the thrills come from seeing the narrator make his choices at the end of the tale. Simple but perfectly executed.
“Percy Thrillington” by Michal Sýkora (Pohořelec)
A more conventional mystery story, a police detective is retiring and in talking with a friend he reminisces about how a vinyl album helped him solve his first homicide case. A businessman is found hanged in his office with a suicide note apologizing to his daughter and laying out his requests for the music for his funeral.
The answers may be apparent to readers but the story is well told and it is a pleasure to follow the detective’s attempts to work through the evidence. Very solid.
Part IV: In Jeopardy
“Better Life” by Michaela Klevisová (Žižkov)
An antiques dealer has taken on some black market work in order to help support his sister and her son who have come to live with him. One week he notices a woman has made repeated visits to his store and he starts to wonder whether she is working for the police or maybe has fallen in love with his picture in a magazine.
Overall I liked this story quite a lot though I found an aspect of the ending confusing and had to reread the last couple of pages. I appreciated that this evolved in an unexpected direction.
“Another Worst Day” by Petra Soukupová (Letná)
A rather good piece telling the story of an investigation into a missing husband’s sudden disappearance. Characterization of the different people involved is strong and while I don’t think I didn’t find the resolution surprising, I think it is well handled.
“Olda No. 3” by Irena Hejdová (Olšany Cemetery)
A divorced woman has picked up a man on a one night stand and has to take the trouble to hide him in her apartment away from her mother and the young son who is still blaming her for the divorce. On the way back from dropping him off at Kindergarten her dog discovers something in the cemetery that will start a short investigation.
This is a well-told tale that has some intriguing twists and turns. I particularly appreciated the coincidence that gives this its title. One of the stronger inclusions in the collection.
“Epiphany, or Whatever You Wish” by Petr Šabach (Bubeneč)
The final story in the collection deals with a man who decides to kill himself to prevent him from killing his wife. It’s an interesting story because it is quite different from the rest of the collection and arguably there is no mystery here at all, being more of a character piece, but I found it to be quite a striking end to what is a pretty strong collection.