This is now my favorite volume of the many, many Akashic Noir series.
It’s a high quality collection without a dud in the bunch.
A few things struck me. Three that I’ll talk about here.
First, I was surprised to find so little crime in Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin. Does an actual crime have to take place for a story to be considered noir? It’s been a while since I’ve read something from this series, but as I recall, the others featured criminal activity in nearly every story.
Here, the focus is really on love. Almost all of the stories in Mississippi feature a set of lovers, if not a love triangle. Love is a prominent theme in noir stories, it might even be a requirement for the genre. Think The Postman Always Rings Twice, or Bonnie and Clyde. But while those are about love, they rely on criminal activity to move the story along.
What if you took the crime out of the story and kept the lover’s relationship going? What sort of end would they have come to if there had been no murder?
That’s what you’ll find in Mississippi Noir and the results make for some excellent reading. By the end, I was starting to wonder if we should count Eudora Welty and William Faulkner as noir. Stories like Petrified Man and Barn Burning are basically perfect for inclusion in Mississippi Noir. Flannery O’Connor fits perfectly into the noir genre, too.
The stories in Mississippi Noir are divided into four sections: Conquest and Revenge, Wayward Youth, Bloodlines, and Skipping Town. Does that not sound like what you would expect in a series of stories set in Mississippi?
Which brings me to my second topic, that of place. The other Noir books I have read did a very good job conjuring place, but none have done quite the thorough job Mississippi Noir does. If you live in America, you already have an image of Mississippi, even if you have never been there. The humidity, the backwoods, the small-town people, the poverty, the plantation architecture, the race relations, the whole Southern Gothic experience. It may be pretty easy for a writer to summon Mississippi for most American readers, but, that said, I found the authors here did an excellent job of it with a few caveats.
The stories, but for one, are all set in small-town Mississippi, the Mississippi most Americans expect. And they tended to be about white folks.
Which brings me round to my third topic.
Judging from the author photos in the back of the book, four of the authors included are African-American. While I didn’t keep a running tally, as I recall, six maybe seven of the sixteen stories include Black characters. Mississippi is 37% Black, the highest percentage of any state in America.
I expected this to feature in more of the stories than it did.
I’m not sure that’s a complaint. This has become an important issue in the U.S. lately. Rather, it’s long been an important issue that has recently been moved from the back burner to the front of the stove. I would have expected an anthology published in 2016 to be a bit more inclusive.
Regardless, Mississippi Noir moves to the bookcase in the study where I keep all the books I plan to reread in retirement. It is the only one of the Noir series to find a home there, so far.