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Revenge: A Noir Anthology About Getting Even

by Kerry J. Schooley and Peter Sellers, eds.

It’s tempting to think of Insomniac Press’s series of noir fiction anthologies (of which Revenge is the third, after Iced and Hard Boiled Love) as a kind of corrective to the swaths of mushy, middlebrow fiction produced in this country. To do so probably puts too much weight on the genre’s shoulders, however. While noir mostly eschews literary fiction’s usual verbal fog machine in favour of an unambiguous turn of the screw, it doesn’t claim more for itself than the qualities of a good mousetrap – that is, to draw the reader in with a tempting scent, then snap his neck clean.

Editors Kerry Schooley and Peter Sellers are a little less adventurous in their selections this time around, sticking mostly to a pool of writers already known for their work in the genre. John Swan, Jim Powell, and William Bankier all contribute tales of vengeance that are short but satisfying.

The transposition of what is essentially an American genre into Canadian territory is a challenge often handled here with wit and ingenuity. Sellers’ effective “Bush Fever” takes a stock revenge plot with the usual twist ending and sets it all on a remote Alberta oilfield. In the stories that don’t work, the writers can’t seem to reconcile themselves to the fact that Canadians don’t act or speak like residents of 1930s Los Angeles, resulting in dialogue that occasionally sounds like the Air Farce doing a lame parody of Raymond Chandler (“Crazy? Yeah, you would be too if you’d been breathing that Sudbury sulfur all these years.”) Noir is built upon a bedrock of cliché, and part of its attraction is in the very familiarity of its conventions, so it would be beside the point to ask these writers to build a better mousetrap. Still, not enough of the stories freshen up the formula.

As in Hard Boiled Love, which included a great Prairie Gothic story by Sinclair Ross, the best story here is from a CanLit pioneer. Hugh Garner’s “Hunky,” set on a Southern Ontario tobacco farm in the late 1950s, not only maintains a tense and foreboding mood throughout, but hangs its story on relatively complex characters, making the inevitable violence all the more potent.