Book Review: "Manhattan Noir 2," Lawrence Block (ed.)

One belongs to New York instantly, 
one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years. 
-- Tom Wolfe

New York City, the "Big Apple," is undoubtedly one of the most interesting cities in the world. The financial, and to a large extent - rivaling San Francisco - the cultural, hub of the USA,  NYC has a personality that is at once recognizable, and utterly impossible to pin down. Perhaps, James Baldwin captured this fascination aptly when he compared all other cities of the world as "a mistake" or ".. a fraud" to the eyes of a native denizen. The skyline of this city is such an all-pervasive presence in pop-culture that someone who has never been there can yet recognize, the landmarks towering over the horizon with an almost practiced ease. Our fascination with this most identifiable icon of urban landscape is not a modern phenomenon, but can be traced to the past century, or beyond. 

Manhattan has been the playground of imagination for writers, poets, artists and philosophers from all walks of life, irrespective of the time period. The skyscrapers, the gargoyles guarding (or are they watching?) over the pavements, the characteristic odor of freshly baked dough, mixed with sweat, the warm oily sheen of the subway, the continuous flux of humans like words flowing through stories, the idyllic expanse of Central Park - have all served as inviting backdrops to numerous literary works. Lawrence Block has collected together a fabulous collection of dark literature, prose and poetry, from such a time. Although the term noir is a very modern labeling of a particular style of fiction, the collection transcends any stylistic limitation and focuses on the essence of noir - exploring the darkness surrounding, and within, the characters and their environment.

Including fiction from the likes of Edith Wharton, Irwin Shaw, O. Henry (personal favorite),  Edgar Allen Poe,  to contemporary practitioners such as Geoffrey Bartholomew, Carol Oates,  and a wonderful tale by Block himself (just so his mother would be proud!), this is a collection of fiction that explores the very definition of what constitutes noir. Reading through the stories and the poems chronologically, one can make two observations readily: first, one can sketch an imaginary arc of influence from the early works to the works in the new millennium, and secondly, the works reflect the social, economic, and cultural clouds that gathered over the famous skyline at the appropriate times in its history - "My Aunt from Twelfth Street" or "The Furnished Room" are two examples that come to mind. 

So curl up with this delightful book in a cozy chair, with some hot cider (or something stronger, if you feel) for company - but don't forget to check the drapes! There might just be something surprising in the shadows...