Review: The dark sensibilities of ‘Kingston Noir’


Kingston Noir

Edited by Colin Channer
Akashic Books: 285 pp; $15.95 trade paper original

Starting in 2004 with “Brooklyn Noir,” the more than 50 titles in the Akashic Books series of crime fiction have been distinguished by contributions from writers who live in or write about cities and areas rife with Hollywood-influenced dark sensibilities (Los Angeles, Manhattan, San Francisco) as well as unexpected places (the Twin Cities, Orange County, Delhi) but whose stories teem nonetheless with betrayal, rage and revenge. Notable editors have included Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Dennis Lehane (Boston) and Patrick Millikin (Phoenix), all of whom have articulated a clear vision for their anthologies while assembling and challenging their usual and unusual suspects to explore character, setting and story in fresh ways.

Add to that list of crime impresarios Colin Channer, editor of “Kingston Noir.” Born in Kingston and raised there until he was 19, Channer has an obvious affection for this “liquor-loving, music-maddened, seafood smitten, class-addicted place.” So too do “Kingston Noir’s” 11 contributors, most of whom are Jamaican born and who, while not considered genre writers, were chosen to illuminate what Channer calls the city’s “turbulent dynamics, with the way its boundaries of color, class, race, gender, ideology, and sexual privilege crisscross like storm-tangled power lines.”


The first part, “Hard Road to Travel,” borrows its title from a 1970s Jimmy Cliff song and features Kwame Dawes’ slyly told “My Lord,” which hews to the conventions of hard-boiled fiction, although the lilting cadence and homespun observations of Brownie, the Stony Hill detective hired to find a beautiful woman’s errant husband, might deceive the reader into imagining Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe rather than Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The section’s other stories by Kei Miller, Patricia Powell and Ian Thomson (“The Dead Yard”) explore the outsider’s experience of Jamaica, most with results that suggest they won’t “come back to Jamaica,” as the 1980s advertising campaign once urged.

“Kingston Noir” subverts the simplistic sunshine/reggae/spliff-smoking image of Jamaica at almost every turn, none more powerfully than in “Immaculate,” Marlon James’ story that closes Part 2, its title taken from the Bob Marley song “Is This Love.” James, whose debut novel, “John Crow’s Devil,” was shortlisted for The Times’ Book Prize, weaves a complex, chilling tale of a group of adolescent girls at Immaculate Conception High School, their naïve dreams of boyfriends and hilltop mansions overlooking the sea shattered when one of their classmates disappears and is found several days later, brutally violated and literally thrown under a bus. The murder and suspiciously convenient confession of a local street vendor put Grace McDonald, a Jamaican medical examiner educated in the States, on a collision course with her own department and the Jamaican underworld in a story worthy of an entire novel.

Channer’s “Monkey Man” is the last story in Part 3, its title taken from a Maytals song. “Monkey Man” mixes together factual elements of the Jamaican music scene of the 1970s, with a liberal dash of the gangster elements that tried to control it. The tale of a white woman kidnapped while working on a BBC documentary about dub music and the man who saved her is a clever yet moving rewrite of the legend behind the Maytals’ “Monkey Man,” even as it makes the reader shudder at the troubled life of the enigmatic hero at its center.

Although “Kingston Noir” makes no concessions to those unfamiliar with Jamaican idioms or history by including a glossary of terms or a timeline of events, the collection amply rewards the reader with a rich interplay of geographies and themes that Channer imagined at the outset but which also echoes Chandler’s observation of Los Angeles’ noir milieu: “The streets were dark with something more than night.”

A frequent contributor to The Times, Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series and has edited several anthologies.