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“Open Mike” by James Nolan

I’ve talked about how I really like short story anthologies, especially ones with a strong thematic tie.  I am about halfway through the New Orleans Noir anthology (i.e., the half of the book set before Hurricane Katrina) and I think I’ve found a new author to binge on: James Nolan.

From the information I can find on him, Nolan seems like a writer who has New Orleans in his blood.  One quote he gave the Times-Picayune really stood out to me.

“New Orleans isn’t only a place but a story we tell ourselves.”

The French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, ...

I'm sure the story we tell ourselves about New Orleans and the French Quarter isn't quite this bright.

This quote really captures what I was hoping to get out of a book entitled New Orleans Noir. I want stories that actually use the backdrop, that can’t just be upped and moved to another place, real or fictional, without something getting lost in the translation.  Some stories in this book performed this feat better than others;* Nolan was one of the ones who did it best.

“Open Mike” in begins in many ways like classic film noir. New Orleans cop Vincent Panarello moonlights as a private detective to support his wife and three kids.  A bereaved mother asks him to find out what happened to her beautiful 20 something daughter who was found dead in the bayou.  The only thing her mother can give the detective is that her daughter was killed by, of all things, poetry.

While investigating the French Quarter places and denizens who may have known about what happened to the girl, Panarello reflects on the life he could have had with his first wife, Janice.  Even though she’s dead long before the story began, one gets the sense that Janice is far more real to Panarello than his current family–he never managed to get over her.

The locales described do a good job evoking the part of the French Quarter that “the tourists haven’t a clue about,” to quote anthology editor Julie Smith.  The place could have easily been some cliché like “Basin City,” all whores and crack dens and corruption, a pastiche of noir settings so absurdly bleak that it is parody.  But in Nolan’s hands, this place feels like a specific city at a specific time.  Nolan, a fifth generation New Orleans denizen, creates not only vivid setting, but a character deeply tied to and defined by the setting with which he has so much history.

All this leads to the big twist at the end.  Without giving away the ending, the twist is what turns this story from “Chandler set in New Orleans” to a wicked study of a person, a place and the forces that shape them both.

According to the ever-authoritative Wikipedia, Nolan has two poetry anthologies published decades ago and a short story collection published two years ago.  Well, at least I can say that the additions to the stack are relatively minimal, all things considered.

* This is not to say that the stories that did not have as strong a sense of place weren’t intriguing in their own right.  Patty Friedmann’s “Two Story Brick Houses” was a well-written punch in the gut, Gossip Girl Mean Girlness taken to the darkest extremes.  But, save for mentioning the titular two story brick houses, nothing about the story made it essential that it be set in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans.  It could have easily been set in some other upscale neighborhood in any other major city in the early 1960’s-one that has private school “more for rich kids than smart kids.”

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