February 26, 2018
Original review published on February 25, 2018 here: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2018/02/borderland-noir-edited-by-craig-mcdonald/
I came across this anthology when I was looking into a feature on Mexican crime fiction, also published this month on BookNoir. I’m glad I did because there is some fine writing here; there is a genuine connection between the stories based at La Frontera, the border. Equally there is a decent variety of interests, style and purpose in these tales. Naturally I have some favourites but I found each piece engaging and thought-provoking, for the main part the fiction is edgy, exciting and original. I think this is a gem for real noir fans.
McDonald has collated eleven short stories, a couple of excerpts from longer works and two short essays. Borderland Noir has contributions from Ken Bruen, James Sallis, Sam Hawken, Martín Solares and several other respected crime writers.
“All roads lead to borderlands of one sort or another”, says Craig McDonald in his introduction. La Frontera has a mystical hold on the imagination of the crime reader, it’s not so much the reality as the myth. “That delicious, dark-eyed myth of the border”, Tom Russell (song writer). The border conjures images of The Day of the Dead, Narcotraficantes, refugees, mariachi and the north/south divide (the rich and the poor). McDonald is keen to point out that borders are a state of mind, it’s not just the physical border, it’s not just about a place or a geographical location. You can imagine it even if you’ve never been to the borderlands.
These pieces reflect on people’s experience as refugees, economic migrants, victims and perpetrators as well as on their desire and desperation. Wider themes are memory, history, corruption and crime – the value of life, and it’s infinite variety along the border. What the frontier does to people and the light we see them in. Villains include a rapist, people slavers, right-wing border guards and vigilantes. These stories are influenced by the best noir traditions, by writers like James M. Cain, novels like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and literary writers like Graham Greene.
Coyote’s Ballad by Mike MacLean deals with two mules (people smugglers), Cruz and Miguel, transporting ten pollos (chickens/people), across the border to sell. Humans as commodities. A young girl is raped and murdered. Rough justice is served but not for the sake of the girl, for greed and for expediency.
To Have To Hold by Ken Bruen (an Irish man surely knows about borders!). Charlene is a mad Johnny Cash fan and she is in a pickle for killing a man.
Trailer dear Fuego by Garnett Elliott. Tench beats a prisoner to make a point for the inmates and the other guards, to establish that ‘the jungle’ has enforcement if not law. Actions have unforeseen consequences in a case of poetic justice.
Reading the Footnotes by John Stickney deals with two men in a car, Federal Agents or killers or both. Postulating on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and echoes of Breaking Bad.
The Work of Wolves by Bradley Mason Hamlin. Devin is pondering the nature of evil. Talking about getting away from his family, going to Universidad, all the while torturing and murdering a man who can’t escape and has to listen to his rambling monologue.
Traven by Martin Solares is an homage to Ben Traven, writer of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Sam Hawken deals with a man murdered in his hotel room with a six-inch stiletto and Tom Russell muses on murder and recent history around Ciudad Juárez.
There are two brilliant essays. One on Touch of Evil, the Orson Welles movie, and the other on Pancho Villa, revolutionary and bandit. Zeltserman tells the story of one of the great noir movies, a tale that happens across the border. Vargas, Charlton Heston, a narcotics investigator in Mexico, witnesses a murder. A businessman and his stripper girlfriend are blown up in their car. As the explosion occurred on the American side of the border Hank Quinlan is called in to investigate, Orson Welles. Marlene Dietrich is brothel owner Tanya. Quinlan frames a boy but he turns out to be guilty, Vargas knows he is framed. A battle for the truth develops between the two men. Dietrich delivers the classic noir line at the end of the film:
“He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about People?”
Pancho Villa is a potted history of the notorious bandit, raising his own army, his role in the revolution, decline into banditry, raids on the US, falling out with other leaders, tawdry death. Short but not lacking in insight.
Both are excellent encapsulations of important border stories.
The anthology is sectioned into North, South and on the Border. The tales are spare; noir prose, short meaningful stories, pithy dialogue and all direct to the point. This is the heart of noir. Darkly entertaining, a really interesting mix of stories and essays.