Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Toronto Noir: World Class, My Ass (Maybe)

Okay, true confessions here. I haven't read Toronto Noir yet, the latest in Akashic's acclaimed "noir" series, which is due out in May. But I've been hearing about it for a while. Quite a while.

You want a Canadian city that justifies a noir anthology, think Montreal. Seriously.

Or Vancouver. Halifax. Hull. St. John's. Yellowknife. Moncton. Sudbury. Even fucking Moose Jaw.

But Toronto? The Queen City may be a lot of things (just ask any Maple Leafs-blue Torontonian) but "noir" is not the term that immediately springs to mind. Smug, superior, self-conscious, nice, bright, clean, self-involved, anal, touristy, squeaky, brassy, well-scrubbed, tight-assed horn-tooters, T.G.I.M., world class-obsessed, faux-American... sure. The city the rest of Canada loves to hate... you bet. But noir?

Still, like I said, I haven't read it. And lord knows, the heart of darkness knows no municipal limits. After all, there's even been a Twin Cities Noir in the series. And a city whose most distinctive landmark is a giant dork certainly ought to be able to get it up. But now that the list of contributors have been released, I'm not being reassured here.

Instead of the usual reliable, if rather predictable, suspects (Bruen, Connelly, Gary Phillips, Block, Rozan, Oates, Estleman, Parrish, Abbott, Lippman, Coleman, etc.) that have made this series so consistently entertaining, the editors, Janine Armin and Nathaniel G. Moore, have opted for a slew of mostly unknown (even by Canadian standards) writers. I assume they were looking for Canadian writers, which is fine, but still...RM Vaughan, Nathan Sellyn, Ibi Kaslik, Heather Birrell, Sean Dixon, Raywat Deonandad, Christine Murray, Emily Schultz, Kim Moritsugu, Mark Sinnet, George Elliott Clarke, Pasha Malla, Michael Redhill?

Who are these guys? Was there some PC checklist? ("Okay, we got a Jew, we need an Arab. And where's our Sikh?")

Sure, they've got Peter Robinson, Gail Bowen and Andrew Pyper to reel in the curious, but the CanCrime scene is a hell of a lot stronger than that. Maybe old school champs like Engel and Wright declined, but where are writers like John McFetridge? Michael Blair? J.D. Carpenter? Mary Jane Maffini? Rosemary Aubert? John Swan? Marc Strange? Giles Blunt? All of them have written tough, often dark and certainly impressive stabs of crime fiction over the last few years, and yet not one of them shows up in these pages. Were they even asked to participate? Or weren't they "Toronto" enough?

(And, of course, even while they're all loudly touting Toronto's much vaunted multiculturalism in all the pre-release publicity, it's quite telling to note that there's not one single French-Canadian contributor. Sad, but typical. "The more that Toronto changes...")

Talk about world class disappointing...

Then again, I haven't heard of either of the authors either. I fear they may be Toronto literary types - or would-be Toronto literary types -- out to "transcend the genre." Certainly nothing in the short bios of Janine and Nathaniel on Akashic's pages suggests any previous connection whatsoever with any sort of crime fiction; much less noir.

Those who can, do. Those who can't, "transcend."

I hope I'm all wrong, and Janine and Nathaniel know exactly what they're doing, and we'll have a solid collection of noir tales that will introduce a whole slew of new and exciting voices to crime fiction readers around the world, giving the CanCrime gang a much-needed and well-deserved shot in the arm and the damn thing will sell a zillion copies.

We'll see...

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Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, I can buy Toronto as noir because John McFetridge managed to do what nobody did in the 20+ years I lived in the GTA and Muskoka - make Toronto interesting by way of showing us the oh-so-seedy side.

How you got into this collection is beyond me, but there are a lot of truer voices of noir fiction in this country that are missing from the equation, as you said.

Will I read it? Doubtful. Like I said, I just don't find Toronto that interesting, until it's time for John's next book.

Give me Vancouver...

2:11 PM, February 05, 2008  
Blogger Stephen Blackmoore said...

Much as I love the idea of the different city noir books, after a while it starts to wear thin. What's next? Cleveland Noir? Berkeley Noir? Provo Noir?

Granted, every place has its seedy side, but some places don't really evoke noir for me.

7:03 PM, February 05, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Good to see J.D. Carpenter and John Swan on your list - even if Kerry is more Hamilton (which to a Montrealer is the same as Toronto, I know) - and the rest who didn't make it. I have no idea how people got in this book, I tried to contact the editors and the publisher a few times but never heard a thing back.

The cover's kinda cool, though.

I'd love to see a Montreal noir, that's a city with a real claim to noir. I don't know enough about Vancouver but Sandra's going to change all that starting in May, right?

8:00 PM, February 05, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Oh, despite its goody two shoes rep, I have no doubt Toronto can be noir, Sandra. Most of the authors I suggested could easily -- or already have -- coughed up the pitch-black goods on Toronto.

Anyone who knows anything about Canuck noir will recall the hattrick of Canuck noir collections that Peter Sellers and Kerry Schooley did a few years ago (ICED, HARD BOILED LOVE and REVENGE). They had several more-than-decent stories set in T.O., if I recall.

So the location itself isn't what bugs me, so much as the behind-the-scenes thing. We all know several writers who should have been invited and apparently weren't.

Besides the ones I mentioned originally, where's Barb Fradkin? Peter Sellers? Brad Smith? James Powell? William Bankier? Vern Smith? Alison Gordon? Matt Firth? Jose Latour?

Were they even asked?

Or if the editors really want to "transcend,' why didn't they try for Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood?

Which is why I suspect the editors don't know much (or possibly don't care much) about crime fiction or noir. Makes you wonder why and how they were chosen...

Did they have compromising pictures of Akashic publisher Johnny Temple? Were they given a pre-approved list? By whom? Was there Canada Council money under the table? Who was the bag man? Does Mulroney have an alibi?

Wouldn't it be ironic if the noirest thing about this book turns out to be how it was put together.

12:58 PM, February 06, 2008  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

Mulroney doesn't have an alibi. He never seems to need one. He's got big, cool friends.

Terrfic piece, Kevin.

2:39 PM, February 06, 2008  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, I was trying to put together a pitch for Canadian Noir - as Linda, John and yourself know. And I had Ian Rankin willing to do the intro to it.

But the response from most Canadian authors I approached? Not interested, or even no response at all.

Shrugs, and whistles Oh Canada. ;)

6:02 PM, February 06, 2008  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I would have liked to seen Rick Mofina in the mix. His books are set in the U.S. but the man was born just outside Toronto for heavens sake and now lives in Ottawa, I believe.

His debut won the Arthur Ellis award from Canadian Crime Writers Assn. He is a vastly underrated writer.

11:51 AM, February 09, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

You're right, P.J.: Rick would be another good choice. But there are so many...

I think part of the problem is that Canada gets cold-shouldered so often in crime fiction circles (sometimes even by ourselves) that a lot of us viewed this book as a chance to really strut our stuff in front of a broader audience than usual.

Instead, it seems like it was a Toronto-only, invitation-only party that totally ignored the Rest-of-Canada crime fiction scene.

Which, being Toronto, should have been expected. And maybe even accepted.

But the editors seem to have also ignored Toronto's OWN crime fiction scene.

Which is why so many writers are either disappointed, puzzled or just hurt.

I mean, maybe all those writers who made the cut, whoever they are, possess bold new voices, fierce visions and unique literary viewpoints, but a few other familiar (or ven just vaguely familiar) names, beyond the three expected, CBC-friendly, U.S.-acceptable Canadian ringers, might have softened the blow.

We'll see...

(And BTW, don't get me wrong. I'm REALLY looking forward to Peter Robinson's story. The man's fiction has always had a great black heart).

2:14 PM, February 09, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, you make some great points here. I'd really like to see an anthology of good Canadian crime writers -- mainly because I don't know who they are. Care to suggest a few names?

I guess I was one of the people they asked and I just jumped at the chance to try something. I don't think my goal was to "transcend" anything. I read a lot of crime stuff (Chester Himes, especially) and have always admired the genre a lot, even if it's not what I usually write myself.

My story's cribbed from Hemingway's "The Killers," so isn't really even "noir" -- just an attempt, a stab in the dark. And I don't think I've written a particularly successful story. I'm sure someone more acquainted with the genre could have done a better job.

But, shit, for whatever reason, they asked. Can you blame me for trying?

8:41 AM, February 24, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Hey, Pasha,

I'm not "blaming" any of the writers. Hell, if they'd asked me, I would have jumped at it too. But they didn't ask me. Which I can live with, I guess- after all, I'm not known primarily as a fiction writer.

But a lot of Canadians who do write crime fiction for what passes for a living also apparently weren't asked, although one of the editors -- who admits to no background in the genre -- told me several "big" names were approached, but declined. Mind you, his big names seemed to be mostly high profile literary types.

Still, if there's ever a round two, they should consider people like John McFetridge? Michael Blair, J.D. Carpenter, Mary Jane Maffini, Rosemary Aubert, John Swan, Marc Strange, Giles Blunt, Peter Sellers, Kerry Schooley, Barb Fradkin, Brad Smith, James Powell, William Bankier, Rick Mofina, Vern Smith, Alison Gordon, Matt Firth, Jose Latour and Linda Richards, just for starters.

The problem is that I find it hard to believe all these people were invited and declined to participate. Certainly, the editor I spoke with seemed to give no indication he'd ever heard of these writers. And most of the writers I've spoken with weren't invited. And a couple even sent queries which they claim were ignored.

If you're interested in pursuing it, a good place to start is the Crime Writers of Canada site (www.crimewriterscanada.com). But that's just scratching the surface...

Head to Sleuth's of Baker Street on Bayview, and Mr. Singh and crew'll fix you up. Come to think of it, HE's the one who should have been asked to be the editor...

2:20 PM, February 25, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

Kevin, you mentioned Montreal as a "noir" city. I don't know much about it's anglo crime fiction, but the francophone side, while developing, is still in an embryonic state. We had, since the middle of the 90s (and the excellent series Omertà) some solid crime dramas, but nothing of the sort in the literary world. not as a movement anyway. We read more crime fiction from outside (even if outside means Quebec City), than we create it. A shame really, because there is so much to tell. We have a powerful and distinct organised crime, the different police organisations (SPVM, SQ and RCMP/GRC) face cultural, social, political and judicial realities very different from any other in the world, we had a bloody recent crime history with the 90s gang war, and yet we are kind of stuck in the fiction department.

3:58 PM, March 03, 2008  
Blogger Kevin R. Tipple said...


Okay, for somebody who has to go the library route and has as far as I can rememeber never read any Canadian crime fiction, with whom should come first reading wise? I see a lot of names but I am wondering if there is a person or a couple of people who should be read first before other folks?


2:20 PM, April 13, 2008  
Anonymous Haven said...

Excellent post....
thank you.

8:43 AM, March 22, 2011  
Anonymous Haven said...

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8:45 AM, March 22, 2011  

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