There’s the Vancouver of charming neighbourhoods, vast verdant parks, lovely beaches and snow-capped mountains as a backdrop to it all.
But the Vancouver of the newly published Vancouver Noir collection of 14 original short stories is the unsettling underside of all that – and the project masterminds couldn’t be happier.
This is the latest in the series of about 100 Noir collections set in cities around the world, published by Akashic Books of Brooklyn, N.Y. Previous Canadian-themed titles were Toronto Noir and Montreal Noir.
While popular Vancouver-area touchstones, central to the city’s pitch for tourists, exist among the collection’s stories, Noir’s focus is such noir-genre touchstones as murder, violence, conspiracy, abduction and unhappy endings.
Vancouver collection editor Sam Wiebe, widely praised for his crime novels Last of the Independents, Invisible Dead and Cut You Down, says noir always involves characters spiralling downward no matter how well things are going as the story begins.
In an interview, Wiebe said Vancouver has a beautiful tourist face. “It’s Hollywood North. It’s got all of these very upper-class, ecoconscious industries, but there are really serious systemic social issues, too. Noir is a great way to work out and explore those.”
In his introduction, Wiebe writes that the book is a “tour through the dark nooks of the city from an expert group of guides,” including authors Linda L. Richards, Timothy Taylor, Sheena Kamal, Dietrich Kalteis and S.G. Wong, who spin tales set in such Vancouver-area neighbourhoods as Mount Pleasant, Commercial Drive, Kitsilano, English Bay and the Financial District.
For example, Richards’s Terminal City, focused on English Bay, is about a female hired killer whose assignment in Vancouver takes an unusual twist. Kamal, whose story is set in the Financial District, writes in Eight Game-Changing Tips on Public Speaking about a ferociously exasperated corporate assistant. Robin Spano’s The Perfect Playgroup, which takes a spin out to West Vancouver, is about what the title suggests and is utterly terrifying. Wiebe also contributed a story, titled Wonderful Life, focused on Commercial Drive.
Akashic Books began its noir series in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Since then, there has been an A-to-Z collection of titles including Atlanta Noir, Baghdad Noir, Copenhagen Noir, Lagos Noir, Moscow Noir and Zagreb Noir.
Vancouver’s turn came after Wiebe made a successful pitch to Akashic Books. He began work on it in 2017, recruiting the writers as part of an effort completed by the middle of the year. Writers were paid a straight fee and received a copy of the finished book. The challenge was tricky. “You’re finding the most economic way to say something and hit a certain point. You can’t waste a lot of words," Wiebe said.
Johnny Temple, president and editor at Akashic Books, said he was long interested in a collection about Vancouver, a city he visited in the 1990s as a rock 'n' roll musician. “But we had to wait for the right proposal,” he said.
“Sam gave us a proposal for a book that we really liked a lot," said Temple, who added that the company looks for a good collection of stories told by a diverse mix of authors.
“When these books succeed, you start to smell and taste the city itself. When done right, it’s not just a city smell, it’s a Vancouver smell. I’d be hard-pressed to really define in great detail how I would describe that. All I really know is I really personally recognize the city I went to and thought it was a really distinct volume.”
Richards, who has written 15 books, said her story, about a female assassin visiting Vancouver for a job, arose out of continuing work she’s done about such a character, which is not set in Vancouver.
"Every few days, I’d pull my head out of the novel and think about Sam’s request: ‘Okay. Vancouver. Short story. What have I got? What am I thinking?’ On one of these trips to the surface, I realized that the part of the novel I was working on at that moment was actually set in Vancouver. Not only that, it was a set-piece; a story on its own. I realized that if I trimmed it some, pulled out the connective tissue to the rest of the book, the story could stand alone,” Richards wrote in an e-mail exchange.
Spano, author of The Perfect Playgroup, says it was “an easy yes” to commit to the project because of her friendship with Wiebe and her respect for his writing. But she said she almost pulled out over the challenge of writing effective noir.
“I didn’t think I could do the genre justice. My published work to date had been light, breezy mystery novels,” Spano wrote in an e-mail.
The author of three novels featuring series character Clare Vengel is a resident of Lions Bay, B.C., and she visits West Vancouver often for shopping and recreation.
“My experience of West Vancouver was as a mom with a toddler – bouncy castles and gymnastics classes and stroller fitness. But after brainstorming with some other moms at a local playgroup, I started to think I would love this challenge.”
As a result, she leaned into her West Vancouver experience and added such noir elements as an outsider protagonist who crosses a moral line and is neither a hero nor villain but very much the guilty party, as well as having an inescapable fate.
Over all, Spano said the collection feels as if the 14 writers were telling a single story. “I feel like that overview, those 14 snapshots in a single frame, adds definition to the realm of Vancouver crime fiction.”
Akashic Books began its world noir tour in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir – a project that was supposed to be a one-off. But in a twist akin to the plot turns of good noir, critical and commercial success made the company rethink its plans.
“Once the book did better than expected, it was really easy to say, ‘Why don’t we take this neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood concept and stick it in other cities?'" Akashic Books president and editor Johnny Temple said.
Temple says it’s clear people relish local crime fiction. “It’s an interesting irony that people enjoy reading about bad things happening in their cities,” he said.
Asked about sales, Temple said, “The series is by no means lucrative, but we could never have done a series of 100 books if they weren’t profitable.”
A promotional page in Vancouver Noir promises 14 new titles, including Addis Ababa Noir, Berlin Noir, Hong Kong Noir and Santa Fe Noir. To Temple, the two big holes are Tokyo Noir and Shanghai Noir.
While there are no future Canadian titles scheduled, Temple said he’s open to pitches. “When we get our Winnipeg Noir proposal, we will be taking it very seriously."