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News & Features » August 2016 » Scott Phillips’s Introduction to St. Louis Noir

Scott Phillips’s Introduction to St. Louis Noir

To celebrate the release of St. Louis Noir, the latest from Akashic’s Noir Series, we’re pleased to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the collection with editor Scott Phillips’s introduction, “High and Low Collide.”

High and Low Collide

The St. Louis region has had a rough time over the past few years. A number of our school districts are unaccredited. A large section of a North St. Louis County landfill is burning uncontrolled—yes, it’s on fire—and said fire is only yards away from a World War II–era radioactive waste dump. There’s the matter of the region’s de facto segregation, a persistent pox on the city and county decades after the explicit, institutional variety became illegal. A number of our suburban municipalities have lately been exposed in the act of strong-arming their poorest citizens, running what amount to debtors’ prisons. In recent years one of those cities, Ferguson, has become a national synonym for police misconduct and institutional racism. At the same time we are preparing to build a billion-dollar football stadium (40 percent of that sum taxpayer-funded) in an attempt to try and hold on to our hapless and unloved Rams, who may have already decamped for Los Angeles by the time you read these lines.

The region can seem closed off to outsiders. The inevitable question locals ask upon meeting a stranger is, “Where’d you go to high school?” It took me years to understand the geographical, ethnic, and religious subtexts hidden in that question, but I realized early on that responding “Wichita, Kansas” was a quick way to lose my interlocutor’s sympathy and attention. Side streets tend to be haphazardly marked, so much so that my wife and I used to joke that this grew out of a stubborn philosophy that if you’re not from here, you don’t need to know. This was proven a few years back when the federal government demanded that the route to Lambert–St. Louis International Airport be better indicated on area freeways. The classic response in the media from the spokesman for the local agency responsible for the missing airport signage was something along the lines of: “We just figured everybody knew where the airport was.”

Amid all this is a rich, multicultural history of art and literature both high and low, stemming from conflict and passions running hot. The ballads “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny” are each based on actual murder cases from St. Louis in the 1890s, a far cry from the wholesome turn-of-the-century version depicted in Meet Me in St. Louis. But the highbrow and low meeting head-on are part and parcel of the St. Louis experience. Tennessee Williams got his ass out of here as soon as he was able, but Chuck Berry still lives down the road in Wentzville, and until he turned eighty-eight in 2014 he still played a monthly gig at Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop.

Maybe the quintessential yin/yang St. Louisan in the arts was Lee Falk, who created the comic strips The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician (both of which still run today); in a loftier vein he was also a theatrical director who worked with Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Basil Rathbone on the New York stage.

This collection strives for some of that same energy that the collision of high and low can produce. From L.J. Smith’s smoky ballad “Tell Them Your Name Is Barbara” to S.L. Coney’s brutal “Abandoned Places,” these writers have staked out the far ends of the noir spectrum and hit most of the key points between them. The first story I requested for the anthology was “Fool’s Luck” by LaVelle Wilkins-Chinn. I’d read an early draft of the story and loved it, but when I asked if she’d be willing to include it here she wasn’t sure it qualified as noir, since, though its central character is certainly criminal, it isn’t a crime story in the most obvious sense. But one of the definitions of noir (and I hesitate to open that particular debate here, so please don’t write to tell me the proper definition) is that it traffics in fatality and doom and bad luck and characters who persistently, knowingly, act against their own best interests. And that’s what “Fool’s Luck” is all about.

Some of the writers included here will be new to you, at least in this context, though you may be familiar with them from their day jobs. Umar Lee is a prominent local activist and has become a fixture in the national media since the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Jason Makansi wears many hats but I first knew him as a publisher; we have not one but two accomplished film critics providing stories: Calvin Wilson (who is also a jazz deejay) and Chris Barsanti.

Some of the other writers in the book are well known nationally. Laura Benedict and John Lutz, both of whom produced fine stories with good humor, need no introduction here. I hadn’t realized, though, that Colleen J. McElroy had lived in St. Louis until Akashic Books publisher Johnny Temple suggested we approach her about submitting. Jedidiah Ayres is recognized by aficionados of noir fiction as one of the originators (along with Peter Rozovsky and my own bad self) of the now-ubiquitous reading series Noir at the Bar. Paul D. Marks is fast becoming a major force in crime fiction. And I’m very proud to be able to include four poems by St. Louis’s Poet Laureate, Michael Castro.

All these writers come at their work with different perspectives and styles but all with a connection to and a passion for our troubled city and its surroundings. I am immensely pleased to have been able to collect them in this volume.


ScottPhillipsSCOTT PHILLIPS was born in Wichita, Kansas, and lived for many years in Paris, France, and Southern California. In the early 2000s he moved to St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author of seven novels and a collection of short stories, and his novel The Ice Harvest was aNew York Times Notable Book and was made into a film starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, and Connie Nielsen. He is the editor of St. Louis Noir.

Posted: Aug 17, 2016

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