DALLAS The city of Dallas has been called many things over the years but “noir” is rarely one of them. Unlike L.A., Miami or San Francisco — where writers such as James Ellroy, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, James Cain and Dashiell Hammett became famous for shining a light on these cities’ dark corners — Dallas and North Texas in general have not been seen by the world at large through this particular literary lens.
That changes with the publication of Dallas Noir, a collection of 16 short stories of crime and moral ambiguity, by writers with North Texas roots, including such notables as Matt Bondurant (whose The Wettest County in the World became the movie Lawless), and bestsellers Kathleen Kent and Ben Fountain. Dallas Noir is the latest in New York-based Akashic Books’ Noir Series, which also includes New Jersey Noir (edited by Joyce Carol Oates) and Boston Noir (edited by Dennis Lehane).
“Dallas is a great noir town,” says Dallas Noir editor David Hale Smith, a Dallas-based literary agent, over lunch recently. “It has the juxtaposition of really wealthy and a large poor population and then it has a lot of strivers. It’s also a kind of transient town, whether it’s just people blowing through or being relocated for work or coming here for the economy. There’s a lot of movement, people moving in and out of different layers.
“Also, there’s so much money here because of the big industries, big oil and wealthy families.”
It also the city where one of the most public crimes of the 20th century — the assassination of JFK — took place, which is, as Smith says in his introduction to Dallas Noir, “a permanent black scar on its history that will never be erased.”
“The beautiful thing about noir — it just sort of means dark in theme — is that they are stories and films in which the protagonist is on a flawed quest and they’re driven by a morally questionable lust for money, power or just sex,” says Smith. “But they are more morally corrupt and they are being morally corrupted and their inevitable end is going to be a bad one. There’s no happy ending in a noir story. Even in a story where the cop gets the bad guy, the cop is sullied.”
Rounding up writers
Smith was contacted by Akashic head Johnny Temple two years ago about heading up the project, a sequel of sorts to Lone Star Noir, the company’s broader Texas-set collection that came out in 2010.
“I was just knocked out,” Smith recalls. “They’d never asked a literary agent to [edit a collection] and I’m not known as a writer. I’m known as an agent. But my name is known in crime fiction circles, and he knows I live here and when he thought of Dallas, it was the first name he knew. He knew that I could get some get good writers and that I could get a mix of writers.”
He set out to show that Dallas, far from being the bland suburbia it’s sometimes portrayed as, is a perfect setting for such stories because of its contradictions. “Art and commerce in constant battle. Immense wealth and crushing poverty,” he writes in the introduction. “Professional athletes, interior decorators, gangbangers and narco-traffickers jammed into a nightclub, dancing the night away during an ice storm. … And everybody — even the old-money rich — is leveraged in mountains and mountains of debt because they are always rolling the dice on another deal. In this atmosphere, nasty surprises lurk around every turn. There are winners and losers. And in good noir stories, they are often one and the same.”
When Smith approached writers with his vision, most jumped at the opportunity. “The coolest thing was Ben Fountain said yes right away. I knew when I had Ben Fountain I was going to be able to attract some of the others,” Smith says, though he concedes there was one who was reluctant.
“Kathleen Kent had to think about it a little bit because — though she has dealt with crime and dark subject matter — but she’d never done anything like this,” he says.
Of course, readers in Tarrant County — where Smith and some of the book’s writers will be appearing at the TCU Bookstore on Sunday — may wonder when Fort Worth is going to get its due. After all, the high priestess of noir, the late Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train), was from Fort Worth.
Smith says there was initial talk of doing a combo Dallas-Fort Worth collection but he warned Temple that Dallas and Fort Worth are very different and that Cowtown deserves its own book.
“We didn’t want to call it DFW Noir,” Smith says with a laugh. “Someone ought to do Fort Worth Noir. I love Fort Worth.”
Smith also says Akashic is pondering a Houston Noir as well.
Whether Akashic goes ahead with these collections may depend on how well Dallas Noir does. If readers take to it, it could open the doors for more Texas noir in general. There have been attempts before — such as Dallas writer Harry Hunsicker’s series of crime novels featuring detective Lee Henry Oswald — but none has really broken out of the mystery underground into the mainstream.
“There’s a chance that there could be a huge bestselling crime series could come out of here easily,” says Smith. “Dallas is a fresh setting. Good writers love to explore new avenues.
“And they can encounter other kinds of wacky, dangerous or powerful characters,” he continues. “We have those in droves here.”