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Thursday, Aug. 11, 2005 08:01 am

Exposing Chicago’s underbelly

Noir is a travelogue with a twisted sense of humor

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Chicago Noir Edited by Neal Pollack, Akashic Books, 275 pages, release date Sept. 1, $14.95

Chicago Noir isn’t about a newspaper, although after reading it I kept thinking of the old riddle “What’s black and white and red all over?” The stage sets in these stories are as shadowy as the characters, whose twisted psyches take them down paths colored by their victims’ blood. Anyone who has enjoyed film noir classics The Big Sleep, The Third Man, or the more recent Chinatown will understand that within the genre, the setting itself is a character. Readers who love Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Carl Hiaasen, and Elmore Leonard will appreciate the collaborative effort of 18 talented writers whose perspectives render a melancholy view of a city that’s been almost forgotten.

In his preface, editor Neal Pollack bemoans the loss of the Chicago he remembers from his days as a reporter there 10 years ago. The current Mayor Daley’s reign could be called the rapid revamp. Gone are Pollack’s beloved bars, restaurants, and their often bizarre patrons, replaced by condos and what the editor refers to as a spaceship in Soldier Field. Although he is not arguing the case for urban blight, Pollack makes a fair point (but could have come up with a more descriptive adjective) in saying that the city is now less “interesting.”

On the heels of last year’s Edgar Award nominee, Brooklyn Noir, Pollack assembled a cast of writers to craft a similar portrait of Chicago. English profs, reporters, actors, performance artists, and just plain writers have spent considerable time in our governor’s favorite town, and they share his enthusiasm for it. One of them is Springfield’s own Amy Sayre-Roberts, a University of Illinois at Springfield grad who will begin working toward a master of fine arts in creative writing this fall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her story, “Dead Mouth,” should send would-be lovers flocking to eharmony.com. Suffice it to say that the next date you meet in a bar may be your last.

Small-time crooks, big-time operators, and femmes fatales populate these pages. They have a language all their own. Everyone know the line “Of all the gin joints in all the world. . . .” Now listen to some of the opening lines here: “The guy at the end of the bar was dead.” “I have three memories of my cousin Maximillian.” “High black cat is the worst kind of luck.” They have the tone down pat: evil, ambiguity, desperation, and paranoia. How could you not want to read on?

Chicago Noir could be thought of as a travelogue with a twisted sense of humor. Its stories are organized by intersection, moving from the South Side all the way to the Wisconsin border. A map is included. Chalk-outlined corpses mark each site along the route. It’s a trip best taken from your favorite armchair unless, of course, you’re packin’ a rod and have a time machine. Either way, I predict you’ll enjoy the ride.

Amy Sayre-Roberts and fellow writer Andrew Ervin will sign books at Borders Books & Music, 802 W. Town Center Blvd. in Champaign, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17.

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