Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Brooklyn Noir

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New York’s punchiest borough asserts its criminal legacy with all new stories from a magnificent set of today’s best writers.

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“Brooklyn Crime Tales Flavored by Neighborhood” by Dinitia Smith, from The New York Times, June 24, 2004

Tim McLoughlin, a Brooklyn writer and editor, stopped off at a local bar after a Brooklyn Cyclones game. Along with the beer, the bartender, Thomas Morrissey, thrust his unpublished short story, “Can’t Catch Me,” into his hands. Mr. McLoughlin loved the piece, about a detective who investigates the murder of a Bay Ridge baker who is found dead one day in his shop. The clue lies in the gingerbread cookies the man was baking when he was killed.

And now “Can’t Catch Me” is part of Brooklyn Noir, a collection of crime stories set in different Brooklyn neighborhoods, edited by Mr. McLoughlin and to be published next month by Akashic Books.

Brooklyn Noir was the brainchild of Mr. McLoughlin, who works by day as a court clerk at Kings County Supreme Court and says he has never been away from Brooklyn more than six consecutive weeks, and of Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher. Mr. Temple founded the company in Brooklyn in 1997 and supports it at night by playing bass guitar for the rock group “Girls Against Boys.”

Publication is to be accompanied by a series of readings and events extending into the fall; the first is on Monday at the office of the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, from noon to 2 p.m.

The stories are set far and wide in the borough, from Red Hook to Bushwick to Canarsie. Some are by well-known writers like Pete Hamill, for whom Brooklyn is his hometown. He contributed “The Book Signing,” about a famous author who returns to Park Slope to give a reading and is haunted by memories of his youth: “As a boy he had walked these streets many times on nights like this, when most people retreated swiftly from the bitter cold to the uncertain warmth of the flats. Nights of piled snow and stranded streetcars.” Suddenly, the image of a woman he once loved appears like a specter in front of his eyes, with an ominous conclusion.

Maggie Estep, who lives in Williamsburg, set her story, “Triple Harrison,” in a place known locally as “the Hole,” around Dumont Avenue, where there used to be stables. One man kills another in an argument over a horse, and in a panic stashes the body in the trunk of his car. The story has an ending all too common for those who park their cars on the great borough’s streets.

“The Hole” has figured in a series of crime novels by Ms. Estep, who first moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan about 15 years ago and who calls Brooklyn “alive with the possibility of danger.” “I exhausted Manhattan a long time ago,” Ms. Estep said. “I moved to Brooklyn. It is endless.” Brooklyn has always occupied a special place in the imagination of American writers who have been captivated by its raffishness. Walt Whitman, Hubert Selby Jr., Thomas Wolfe, Betty Smith, Marianne Moore, Chaim Potok and H. P. Lovecraft have all written about its splendid and gritty precincts. Among the well-known writers who live there now are Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster.

Once a grand city that rivaled Manhattan, Brooklyn’s immensity, at 81.8 square miles as opposed to Manhattan’s 23.7, and its multiplicity of neighborhoods, each with its own customs and ethnic variations, provide authors with a grand canvas on which to ply their craft.

“An hundred dialects assail the sky,” that master of gothic horror Lovecraft wrote in his 1926 short story “The Horror at Red Hook.”

Something about Brooklyn makes writers reach for superlatives. “Stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!” Walt Whitman wrote. “Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers.”

Mr. Hamill once even compared Brooklyn’s light to that of a Vermeer painting. Mr. Lethem writes lovingly in his novel Motherless Brooklyn of the light hanging over Gowanus, “like the palm of a hand or the inner surface of a seashell.”

On the telephone the other day, Mr. Markowitz, the borough president, was only too happy to wax enthusiastic about Brooklyn writing. “There is this romanticism about Brooklyn,” he said. “Wherever you go, there is a smile on your face. Writers and artists feel their creative juices work best here.”

“They have that Brooklyn experience,” he added. “They share it.”

Three stories in Brooklyn Noir happen to be by clerks in the same Kings County courthouse. Mr. McLoughlin’s “When All This Was Bay Ridge” is about a man who searches for the identity of a woman in a photograph with his father, a woman who is not his mother. Mr. McLoughlin’s colleague Lou Manfredo contributed “Case Closed,” set in Bensonhurst, about a detective drawn to a woman who is a victim of a sexual assault. A third story is by C. J. Sullivan, who also writes a column for The New York Press. Called “Slipping Into Darkness” and set in Bushwick, it is about a Latino woman who is pulled inexorably back into the life of the ghetto that her family has tried so hard to escape.

The stories of Brooklyn Noir cover every ethnic stripe. Pearl Abraham, who grew up in a Hasidic family with ties to Brooklyn, wrote “Hasidic Noir,” set in Williamsburg. It is about a Hasidic detective who sets out to find a murderer against the backdrop of a rivalry between two different sects. Her story evokes the particular quality of a Williamsburg evening: “It was a deep blue evening with a moon and stars brighter than the street lights, and the shadows of men on their way home grew long and lean.” She fills it with intimate details of Hasidic life, the morning rituals of the mikvah, complicated accusations of corruption in the kosher seal of one group when a box of nonkosher gelatin is found in someone’s kitchen.

Kenji Jasper, an African-American, contributed “Thursday” to the collection. It is about a writer in Bedford-Stuyvesant who is unlucky in love and who becomes involved in a criminal scheme in an effort to win a girl’s heart. The story is peopled with odd characters ‹ a bootleg travel agent who hacks into the local high speed Internet connection, a barber who sells guns on the side, four drug dealers who live in the basement of Le Starving Artist Cafe.

“Brooklyn is such a rich and diverse culture,” said Mr. Jasper, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant himself. “You can make a wrong turn and end up in another country.” Or, he added, “you can make the wrong decision and it is not going to be a good day for you.”

In the end, Brooklyn may be simply unknowable, and that, of course, is the writer’s real challenge.