"Men of the Mean Streets"
Edited by Greg Herren & J.M. Redmann
Review by Josh Lanyon
Reading Men of the Mean Streets: Gay Noir, the new anthology edited by Greg Herren & J.M. Redmann, I was reminded of two facts.
First, how difficult it is to write a really good short story.
Second, how poorly understood the term noir is. In fact, the current fashion seems to be -- and editor Greg Herren seems to agree, at least in the introduction, that noir, like art, is in the eye of the beholder, thus making it an essentially meaningless title -- or a label slapped on for commercial purposes, which I can't help but feel is the intent here.
Out of the fourteen stories in this anthology -- ranging from the truly awful to the excellent -- only seven could stretch far enough to fit some definition of noir. Perhaps that's rather odd, given gay mystery's noir antecedents. Initially homosexuals appeared in mystery fiction as victims or villains. Occasionally they made an entrance as colorful side characters. But these depictions were rarely, if ever, sympathetic.
The first actual gay mystery -- meaning a mystery with a gay protagonist -- is generally held to be Rodney Garland's The Heart in Exile, a neatly written noirish tale first published in 1953. It was followed in the 60s by a number of pulp releases, but the sub-genre finally came into its own with Joseph Hansen and the Dave Brandstetter series. Though the Brandstetter books have a dark sensibility, they are more classic PI fiction than true noir. However, Hansen did two classic noir novels: Steps Going Down and Stranger to Himself, and it is frankly appalling that Herren invokes the tired old Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald triumvirate (with the mandatory reference to James M. Cain, this being an ostensibly "noir" collection) and yet neglects to mention Hansen. In fact, there is nothing in the intro of this anthology to suggest any awareness of the literary history of gay noir.
I suppose we could look at it as a positive that gay mystery has now come full circle. That after taking decades to get gay sleuths to the point where their happy endings are no longer remarkable, we can now cheerfully revert back to nihilism and noir.
But why noir? This was the question I kept coming back to as I read. The stories include fantasy, science fiction, psychological suspense, hardboiled PI, and satire. (At least, I think satire. I'm not entirely sure.) Why label this anthology noir when it is not particularly noir?
Noir is character-driven fiction, and it is most effective when we can identify with the characters. We don't have to like them -- we generally do not like them -- but we need to feel that there, but for the grace of God (if God existed), goes us. We have to understand why the characters give into the temptations that they do, and we have to believe in the terrible, inevitable logic of the sequence of events that will ultimately drop the noose over their heads and kick the chair out from beneath their feet.
In noir, even chance has its own remorseless logic. In Men of the Mean Streets, however, logic too often takes a vacation and leaves convenience and expediency to house-sit. And in Jeffrey Round's "Mouse" and Michael Thomas Ford's atrocious "Faithful," convenience and expediency drink all the beer and bust up the furniture in the joint. Even Neil Plakcy's otherwise well-written "An Appetite for Warmth" ultimately falls back on the main character lapsing into homicidal mania merely because, or so it seemed to me, a story has to end somewhere. Nor is this the only instance of a case of convenient crazies. Throughout the anthology, characters simply and suddenly snap in order to achieve a finale.
There's more noir, any way you choose to define it, in one of Michael Nava's Henry Rios novels than in this entire collection.
Nor, despite the obvious nod in its title from Chandler's classic 1944 essay "The Simple Art of Murder" is it particularly concerned with private eyes.
Oh, there are a few private eye stories here, to be sure. In "Keeping Faith" by Nathan Burgoine the narrator, a cross between a P.I. and an exorcist, is hired to find a priest's lost faith. Sam Page (ouch!) investigates the murder of a gay activist in Jeffrey Ricker's "Murder on the Midway." Adam McCabe's Logan tries to clear a gay activist accused of murder in "Miss Trial." Josh Atervois's gumshoe mixes business with pleasure with dangerous results in his "The Case of the Missing Bulldog." And Julie Smith's part time PI is a drag queen and mixologist extraordinaire trying to figure out -- well, does it matter? In every case (ha!) the stories are disappointingly pedestrian, predictable, and preposterous.
The exception is Felice Picano's witty and well-plotted sci fi story "Imago Blue." Here Investigator Blue Andresson explores the mystery of gender and sexual identity while figuring out who tried to kill her. Er, him.
But with only six of fourteen stories featuring private eyes, this isn't really a P.I. anthology either. That's part of the problem. The anthology isn't particularly anything.
On the positive side, there's a refreshing absence of fedoras and bottles of rye in desk drawers, but there is also the inevitable absence of one of noir's most important tropes, the femme fatale. Indeed, there's an absence of any women at all who aren't gross caricatures (Perhaps they're in the companion volume, Women of the Mean Streets, which Herren and Redmann also edited? -- editor).
Oh, we have a couple of murderesses in Men of the Mean Streets, but they're hardly the empowered and dangerous temptresses of noir or hardboiled fiction. The women littering these pages are almost universally psychotic, ugly, and/or pathetic. They are dispatched with blithe disregard. As the narrator (an editor who murders an annoying female author who makes a pass at him) in Max Reynold's "Thin Blue Line" explains: "Well, that is the thing about sexual predation, isn't it? -- there's no logic in it. I feared for Cam, for my job, for myself, for my own identity."
I'm still struggling to make sense of Reynold's message. An unwanted pass is to be tolerated from, say, a gay teen, but a woman would deserve the death penalty? Homophobia is wrong, but misogyny is fine? Or is it only fine if it's coming from gay men?
Nor do the gender-switched homme fatales in stories like Rob Byrnes' "Patience, Colorado" and Mel Bossa's "Last Call" fare much better, given the determination to avoid anything that might even vaguely resemble romance. I will say, however, these last are two of the better stories, and do display a genuinely noir sensibility.
The best story, however, is a little gem from John Morgan Wilson titled "Cocktail Hour." As one would expect from Wilson, it's tightly written, atmospheric, and effective. Its only weakness is (again) the weakness of nearly every story in this anthology: there is little (in most cases no) discernable motive for the choices the characters make.
The final problem with this anthology did not occur to me until I was thinking over this review and trying to find a nice way to say that I feel this is an unfortunate first try at what could have been a landmark anthology. While there’s no reason that gay writers must be restricted to gay motifs and gay constructs, the fact that this collection is advertised as gay noir would seem to suggest a more meaningful approach to gay themes and concerns than we typically find in mainstream mystery. The fact that the authors here eschew such an opportunity and go for the standard homogenized midstream approach could, I guess, be viewed as a victory.
It’s a hollow one, however.
One might even call it noirish.
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Men of the Mean Streets
Edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann
Buy this book
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Report respectfully submitted by Josh Lanyon. An Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, Josh has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance short stories, novellas, and novels for over a decade, and is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English amateur sleuth series, the Neil Patrick Rafferty P.I. series and the Nathan Doyle & Matthew Spain series, about a reporter and a cop in 1940s Los Angeles.
And be sure to check out Down These Mean Streets a Gay Man Must Also Go, an essay by Drewey Wayne Gunn.
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