OR: Birmingham Noir

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #33:-


Edited by Joel Lane & Steve Bishop

Tindal Street Press pb, 320pp, £7.99

This collection of twenty three stories, all of them set in England’s second city, aims to make Birmingham as cool to the crime aficionado as the mean streets of LA, New York and London. On that score I’m not sure they succeed, as while I came away with a few more place names to drop, I didn’t get any feel for the city itself, no real sense of what made it different from any other big but nondescript burg. It would be a shame though if such considerations were allowed to detract from this book’s very real achievement, because Birmingham Noir is one of the strongest collections of short stories that I’ve read in some time, with only a few pieces that do not hit the spot and a couple that must surely rate among the year’s best. The presiding mood is downbeat and, with a couple of exceptions, such crime genre old reliables as the harassed policeman and the soiled but honest PI are left standing by the roadside. Instead we have ordinary people, some of them bad and others not so, trapped in extraordinary situations and doing the best that they can to get out from under.

‘The Kiss’ by Rob Smith is a story of murder, but by incorporating themes of misogyny and race hatred becomes a painful snapshot of front line Britain. Zulfiqar Ali’s ‘Vendetta’ is another compelling study of how violence can spiral out of control, as a man attempts to defend his own space against the inroads of drug dealers. ‘Cassiopeia’s Nipple’ by John Mulcreevy taks a page out of tomorrow’s headlines, with themes of child murder and vigilantism, and is an alarming account of the dangers of being perceived as different. ‘Games Without Rules’ by Rubina Din has childhood patterns of bullying and abuse carried over into adulthood with tragic consequences, while in ‘The Mentality’ by John Dalton a less than scrupulous private eye stumbles into a murder investigation and sees the chance to turn a quick profit.

The sex industry features in several of the stories. John Harvey’s ‘Smile’ is a powerful and moving story of an Eastern European girl coming to the UK in search of a new life and then forced into prostitution, portraying such immigrants in sympathetic and humane terms. Mike Chinn’s ‘Brindley’s Place’ covers similar territory, with its world weary anti-hero trying to find redemption through saving another lost soul from the porn industry. ‘Means to an End’ by Claire Thomas has a young runaway deciding to return home after confronting the death of a prostitute, but is more in the nature of snapshot of misery than story, and suffers slightly from its rather obvious moral slant.

Serial killers of one stripe or another are a recurring theme, as for instance in Lane’s own ‘This Night Last Woman’, an outstanding story in an above average collection, a bittersweet tale of murder and lonely people searching the night for some comfort, beautifully written and characterized. Clever plotting and a convincing narrative voice typify fellow editor Bishop’s ‘Safe as Milk’, with a man lured into the web of a woman with a grudge against all men. ‘The Inland Waterways Association’ by Nicholas Royle is another exercise in deft construction, all the pieces falling neatly into place as the story’s protagonist becomes part of a deadly game played by a killer with pretensions to art. Not so successful is Paul Finch’s ‘Trashman’, one of the book’s few weak offerings, with a policeman discovering a clandestine organization of serial killer groupies, a story that suffers from too obvious a plot and lack of credibility, at times veering uncomfortably close to parody.

As ever, the family is a hotbed of violence. In ‘Doctor’s Orders’ by Judith Cutler the abused bride of an arranged marriage engineers a satisfying revenge on her husband. Kay Fletcher’s blackly comedic ‘Pest Control’ is a little too obvious and plot reliant, rather like Roald Dahl in Unexpected mode, but in the end everything comes together so well you can’t help applauding as a man who has disposed of his annoying family gets a much deserved comeuppance. ‘Passing Over’ by Elizabeth Mulrey puts a chilling spin on a death in the family, with the suggestion of much more than meets the eye, while in ‘The End of Something’ by Wayne Dean-Richards a young boy’s protectiveness towards his sister ends in violence and loss of innocence.

Obsession and madness feature in several of the stories. The protagonist of Andrew Newsham’s ‘His Own Skeleton’ has an idée fixe worthy of Poe, the matter of fact narration heightening the drama, while ‘The Way She Looks at Me’ by Pauline Gould focuses on a security guard whose grip on sanity is slowly unravelling. Pauline E. Dungate’s ‘Lucy’, one of the most distressing stories here, is the painfully detailed account of a street person losing her mind as the strain of looking after a child becomes too much for her, a strand of compassion redeeming the story’s bleak horror, and hints in the background of something far more sinister.

Career criminals are another recurring theme, though here more than elsewhere the collection suffers from a familiarity of material, the kind of thing we’ve all seen done plenty of times before and have come to expect from the crime genre. In the going through the motions ‘Dyed Blonde’ by Rachel Taylor a woman tries to escape her criminal past and, needless to say, fails. Similarly in Mike Scully’s ‘Little Moscow’ a man gets out of gaol and comes looking for the people he holds responsible, only to do no better the second time around than he did the first. There’s not much you can say about these. They’re readable, but have nothing new to add and don’t sit well with the originality of the remainder. Don Nixon’s ‘Santa’s Grotto’ is in a similar vein as regards plot, but saves itself from the clutches of the mundane with some nice touches of characterization and humour as the protagonist dons red hood and white beard to get back at the partner who betrayed him all those years ago.

The book ends on a high note, with the brutal and emotive ‘The Art of Leaving Completely’ by Simon Avery, a writer whose work I don’t usually enjoy, but here outstanding with the picture of a marriage on the way out and a man who tries to save somebody else even though he can’t save himself. Blurber Carol Anne Davis reckons this story alone is worth the cover price, and she’s not wrong, though it’s far from being the only reason to seek out these second city sinners.

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