Ann Hood’s Introduction to Providence Noir
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Like so many things, it started with Sunday Afternoon at the Movies. It started with Barbara Stanwyck appearing at the top of a staircase wrapped in a towel and Fred MacMurray (Steve Douglas of My Three Sons!) making wisecracks and double entendres. It started with Double Indemnity. My grandmother Mama Rose in her faded pink chair, muttering in broken English. Me on the floor in front of the Zenith, munching scorched Jiffy Pop, transfixed.
“How could I know,” MacMurray as Walter Neff asks, “that murder sometimes smells like honeysuckle?” This is poetry, I thought. This is sex and mystery and murder. This, I later learned, is noir.
I was a kid who saved her allowance to buy Nancy Drew books, one a week. I read them in order, from The Secret of the Old Clock to The Mystery of the 99 Steps, lining them up on a shelf in my room. Their bright yellow bindings perfectly matched the yellow and white gingham bedspread and curtains. Everything about Nancy, Bess, and George was bright: their smiles, Nancy’s blue Roadster and her boyfriend Ned Nickerson. Even though the covers were meant to look spooky, Nancy always appeared with cherry-red lips and a blond flip hairdo, cast in a beam of light.
Noir was everything Nancy Drew wasn’t. From the moment Walter Neff arrived sweaty and wounded at his insurance office, I knew I had stepped into someplace new, someplace dark. I didn’t know then that Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and all the other movies I watched on those long-ago Sunday afternoons with Mama Rose, had sprung from books. That, I learned later. And once I did, I devoured them. As an international flight attendant for TWA, I stuffed James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler paperbacks into my fat crew bag, reading them on the jump seat at thirty-five thousand feet over the Atlantic as the passengers slept. This was the world of dames and hard-boiled men, of shadowy cities, of booze and cigarettes.
“Noir is about sex and money and sometimes about revenge,” Otto Penzler, the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan, told the New Yorker in 2010. In noir, he said, there are no heroes and no happy endings.
As often happens with literature, it finds you when you need it most. Those Sunday-afternoon movies helped move me from childhood to adolescence, away from Nancy Drew’s sunny life; they offered a glimpse of what was out there in the big world beyond my little town of West Warwick in the littlest state. The novels landed in my uniformed lap as my world began to unravel.
My brother Skip, my only sibling, died suddenly in 1982. His body was found facedown in a few inches of water in his bathtub in Pittsburgh. The screen in the window had a bullet hole in it. Safe deposit box keys were missing. There were drugs and footprints, a scorned fiancée, and an ex-wife. There had been arguments with both of them, and threats made. There was one witness: Skip’s Irish setter, Rogan. After a six-month investigation, the police determined his death was accidental, even though they could never connect the dots of the bullet hole or the missing keys or any of the other suspicious events and characters.
Refusing to accept the police report’s findings, my mother began going to psychics to solve the crime. Each one told her the same thing: he had been murdered by a dark-haired man in an army-green T-shirt. But who was this mysterious man? She stayed up nights trying to figure it out, to make sense of a thing that was senseless.
Me? I read noir fiction, fiction full of villains, not heroes. Fatalistic and desperate, the characters appealed to me and my broken, confused heart. Months passed, 1982 became 1983, and then one day I looked up and it was the twenty-first century. Whatever happened the night my brother died remains a mystery. But my love of noir continued to grow as I discovered Patricia Highsmith and new noir writers like Dennis Lehane.
So when Johnny Temple, Akashic Books’ publisher, invited me to edit an anthology of original short stories called Providence Noir as part of the Akashic Noir Series, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Not only did my love and admiration of noir fiction make his invitation so appealing, but the opportunity to highlight my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island—a noir setting if ever there was one—added to my delight and eagerness.
Providence was founded in 1636 by a rogue named Roger Williams. He escaped here when Massachusetts was ready to deport him back to England. In the almost four hundred years since, we’ve become infamous for all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors, including serving as home base for the Patriarca crime family for decades. My very own Uncle Eddie—I can hear Mama Rose screaming at me: “He wasn’t a blood relative, he was related through marriage!”—was gunned down in the Silver Lake section of town in 1964, just a year after he drove me in his white Cadillac convertible in a parade as the newly crowned Little Miss Natick. The writer Geoffrey Wolff told me that once he went to a barber in Princeton, New Jersey, and the barber asked him where he was from. “Providence,” Wolff told him. The barber put down his scissors, raised his hands in the air, and said, “Providence? Don’t shoot!”
I’ve asked fourteen of my favorite writers to contribute short stories to Providence Noir. We have stories to make you shiver, stories to make you think, stories that will show you my beautiful, noirish city in a way it’s never been highlighted before.
Elizabeth Strout, whose book Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009, takes us to Providence’s esteemed theater company, Trinity Rep. Providence native, novelist, and short story writer Hester Kaplan, winner of the 1999 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, sets her story at our local mental hospital, Butler. Alabama native Taylor Polites writes about his own neighborhood, the Armory District, so named for the hulking 1903 armory that makes up one of its borders. Novelist Amity Gaige graduated from Brown University and returns to College Hill for her story. John Searles, who is not only a best-selling novelist but also the book critic for NBC’s Today show, drops his story on Arnold Street. LaShonda Barnett sets “Waltz Me Once Again” in the Mount Hope section and features Providence’s vibrant Cape Verdean population.
Olneyville is the setting for Robert Leuci’s eponymous story. Leuci is a former New York City police detective known for exposing corruption in the department; the book and movie Prince of the City are partially based on his career. Former Providence resident, essayist, and author Marie Myung-Ok Lee places her story in and around Brown University where she used to teach. I go back in time, to the downtown Providence I knew when I was a kid and people arranged to meet under the Shepard clock. Since 1994, sculptor Barnaby Evans has been igniting Providence’s rivers with one hundred bonfires. That’s where Pablo Rodriguez, a popular radio host on Latin Public Radio and an OB-GYN, tells his murderous tale.
New York Times best-selling novelist Luanne Rice has previously used Newport, Rhode Island as a setting. But here she writes about Fox Point and its Portuguese heritage. Edgar Award–winning crime novelist Bruce DeSilva has set three novels in Providence, and his short story takes place in the Federal Hill area. Dawn Raffel is a novelist, memoirist, and short story writer, as well as a graduate of Brown University. Her story takes place in the city’s train station. Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel Crazy Heart was adapted into the Oscar Award–winning film of the same name. His story is set on the Triggs Memorial Golf Course. And the anthology closes with a story set in the Elmhurst section, written by director, screenwriter, producer, and novelist Peter Farrelly.
What a lineup of writers to illuminate Providence’s noir side! The city’s landmarks, streets, parks, and neighborhoods come alive in their storytelling.
Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote one of my favorite noir short stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” lived here ever so briefly. Back in 1848, he became enamored with a Providence woman, poet Sarah Helen Whitman. Poe said that he fell in love with her at first sight when they met in her rose garden behind her house on Benefit Street. A condition of their courtship was that Poe stop drinking. When someone handed Whitman a note telling her that Poe had broken that promise, she immediately ended the romance. Poe left Providence, and died a year later. He had written “The Tell-Tale Heart” five years earlier, but its opening lines seem appropriate for introducing the stories I’ve gathered for Providence Noir: “Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”
ANN HOOD is the author of the best-selling novels The Obituary Writer, The Knitting Circle, and Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine. Her memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and chosen as one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly. Her essays and short stories have appeared regularly in the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, the Paris Review, Bon Appétit,National Geographic Traveler, and many other newspapers and magazines. Hood has won two Pushcart Prizes, the Paul Bowles Prize in Short Fiction, and her work has been selected for inclusion in three volumes of the Best American Writing anthology series. Hood was born in West Warwick, Rhode Island, and currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island. She is the editor of Providence Noir.
Posted: Jun 17, 2015
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: New Yorker, Noir Series, Akashic Insider, Otto Penzler, Mysterious Bookshop, Rhode Island, Providence, Noir, introduction, Providence Noir, Ann Hood, New England, John Searles, Elizabeth Strout, Taylor M. Polites, Hester Kaplan, Robert Leuci, Amity Gaige, Peter Farrelly, Pablo Rodriguez, Bruce DeSilva, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Luanne Rice, Dawn Raffel, Thomas Cobb, LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Double Indemnity, Nancy Drew, West Warwick, Roger Williams, Silver Lake
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