Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Things Are About to Get Dark: Montana Noir spills blood on the prairie

Sometimes I write with blood on the keyboard. The dark, thick, oozing kind, just released from the prison of vein, that greases my imagination as I turn down a series of midnight-black streets.

In other words, noir mystery. Not the cozy kind from Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, not the police procedurals of Ed McBain or Patricia Cornwell, but the hardboiled prose rolling off the knuckles of writers like Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald and Raymond Chandler. Tough stuff full of hard liquor, soft women, and the confusion of blood trying to find its way home to the vein.

One of my short stories in such a vein (so to speak) is called “Red, White and Butte” and it is being published for the first time in a new anthology called Montana Noir, officially out today. Montana Noir is the latest in the acclaimed series from Akashic Books (Brooklyn Noir, Montreal Noir, Atlanta Noir, etc.) and we Montana writers couldn’t be happier to see our famed Big Skies turn to Dark Skies, at least for the space of 288 pages. We’ve been waiting for this anthology for years. There’s not a city big enough in Montana to warrant its own Noir volume, so the publisher decided to spread the murder and mayhem across the entire state. But we’re easy-going Montanans and we’re okay with that. We’re just happy for the chance to finally spill some blood on our prairies and drive stolen cars (with bodies in the trunks) into our forests.

Where the bodies are buried

I was invited by editors James Grady and Keir Graff to write something set in Butte and I’m honored to be in the same pages as authors like Thomas McGuane, Jamie Ford, Debra Earling, Walter Kirn, and Carrie LaSeur, among many others.

As the editors write in their Introduction,
This anthology is a road trip through the dreams and disasters of the true Montana, stories written by authors with Montana in their blood, tales that circle you around the state through its cities and small towns. These are twenty-first-century authors writing timeless sagas of choice, crime, and consequences.
Choice, crime, and consequences. Yep, that pretty much sums up the arc of a noir story.

I took on the assignment with all the glee of Hannibal Lecter sharpening his cutlery at the dinner table. Though I would have liked to include more Butte icons in the story (sadly, I couldn’t fit Pork Chop John’s, the Copper King Mansion, or the Dumas Brothers brothel into the limited word count), I hope Butte-icians will like what is there on the page. Watch for the Finlen Hotel, the Party Palace, Duggan-Dolan Mortuary, Georgetown Lake, Headframe Distillery, Walkerville, and—of course—the Berkeley Pit.

Here’s a little taste of “Red, White, and Butte” to whet your appetite:
       Marlowe was dead and that was fine by me. The two of us had gone off to war together, but only one had returned with his jaw still attached to his face, able to describe what he’d seen. Which was also fine by me since I was the one telling the war stories.
       Marlowe lay in pieces in a coffin at Duggan-Dolan Mortuary in Butte, waiting for the official start of his hero’s welcome: a parade, lying in state for two days under the courthouse rotunda, and a picnic complete with a huckleberry pie bake-off, a three-legged race, and earnest old men in combat ball caps passing around a boot to raise money for a new veterans home. Next to Evel Knievel Days, everyone said it would be the highlight of Butte’s summer.
       The rest of us got a limp salute from our commander and a three-inch stack of discharge paperwork, but Marlowe would have a big to-do—the kind of fuss showered on the dead after they can no longer appreciate it: red-white-and-blue bunting along Granite Street, his widow the grand marshal of the parade, Republican senators inserting Marlowe into their campaign speeches, and Democrats a little more reservedly acknowledging the Butte native’s service and the terrible cost of war.
       Montanans love their hometown heroes. Dead or living, soldiers like Marlowe are praised with words that bloom like fireworks and boom like parade drums from their speakers’ throats.
       But I knew the truth: Private Chandler Marlowe had died a coward in Iraq.
The editors and several of us authors will be taking Montana Noir on the road in the coming days and weeks. For a complete schedule, go here.

If you’re in Montana, we’d love to see you at one of the events. It’ll be the stuff dreams are made of.

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