Prairie Lights: ‘Montana Noir’ captures state dead on

Not every story in “Montana Noir” involves a dead body, but this map from the book shows where the 14 stories are set. (Map: Sohrab Habibion)

Who would have imagined that murder and mayhem could be so much fun?

Ed Kemmick

In “Montana Noir,” a new collection of hard-boiled short stories, 14 writers jump with evident joy into tales teeming with dead bodies, guns, strippers, booze, meth, weed and problematic stores of cash. And they take us to unexpected places, from the rough parts of Great Falls to a depressing corner of Billings Heights, from the loneliest stretches of the Hi-Line’s Highway 2 to the vomit-stained sidewalk in front of the Party Palace in Butte.

What makes it all so entertaining is that most of these writers have not previously dabbled in noir fiction, the tough-guy style of crime writing epitomized way back in 1929 by Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” set in a barely disguised Butte.

I got the sense that all these writers were having a blast toying with a genre that is so tempting to parody but so difficult to get just right.

“Montana Noir,” scheduled for release on Sept. 5, is part of a noir series that the publisher, Akashic Books, launched in 2004 with “Brooklyn Noir.” It has since expanded to nearly 90 books set all over the world. The next three in the series, to be released after “Montana Noir,” will have stories set in Montreal, Buenos Aires and Prague.

“Montana Noir” was edited by two Montana-born writers who also contribute stories to the collection. James Grady, a native of Shelby, a former aide to the late U.S. Sen. Lee Metcalf and author of “Six Days of the Condor,” lives in Maryland. His co-editor is Keir Graff, a native of Missoula, a novelist and executive editor of Booklist in Chicago.

Graff said he met Grady at what was then the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula in 2009. Shortly after that, Grady told Graff he was hoping to interest Akashic in a noir collection set in Montana. Graff originally was intending only to be a contributor, but he eventually signed on as co-editor after they managed to convince the publisher to do a Montana book.

Graff said it was an “agonizing process” to choose just 14 contributors in a state with so many good writers. And they wanted diversity as well—meaning writers from all over the state, with stories set across Montana and from writers beyond the pool of white males who tend to dominate the noir scene.

“We wanted to represent modern Montana and the people who live there as best we could,” he said.

Books in the Akashic noir series generally include all new material, but the publisher made one exception for “Montana Noir.” Thomas McGuane’s story, “Motherlode,” set in Jordan, previously appeared in The New Yorker. Graff said they made an exception because of McGuane’s stature, and because the story was so good.

For each of the other stories, the editors asked the writers to set their tales in particular places. The one wild card was Walter Kirn’s story, “Oasis.” They had asked Kirn to set his story in Livingston, where he lives, and while he never specifically agreed to that, they assumed that’s what he was working on.

But when his story came in it was set in Billings Heights, at a 24-hour pizza joint whose cash drawer is constantly being raided by the owner so he can feed the machines at a nearby casino. It was one of many pleasant surprises for the editors.

“What people brought back exceeded our wildest dreams,” Graff said.

What really struck me about this collection was the breadth of the Montana experience it encompasses. Yvonne Seng sets her story, “All the Damn Stars in the Sky,” in St. Marie, the abandoned Air Force base outside of Glasgow. Her wild climax brings together a gang of militia extremists, an aerospace company’s private security force, the county sheriff, a Montana congressman, Japanese tourists, a carload of strippers and Salvadoran refugees. Somehow, in light of our recent history, it comes off as not altogether outlandish.

At the climax of Eric Heidle’s “Ace in the Hole,” set in Great Falls, the main character, recently released from the prison in Deer Lodge, deliberately, desperately, crashes his pickup through the security fence surrounding a nuclear missile silo.

In one of the most beguiling stories, Caroline Patterson’s “Constellations,” a young girl from Missoula is working as a page at the 1972 Constitutional Convention in Helena. In the beautifully balanced tale, we watch her experience changes as momentous as those confronting her native state.

Two authors — Carrie La Seur and Sidner Larson — give us stories involving lawyers and Indian land, deep history and family roots. They are very different stories, but they both say much about contemporary Montana and how we got here.

In “Fireweed,” set in wheat country north of Great Falls, Janet Skeslien Charles explores the tensions that beset a small town when everybody realizes that the person responsible for a recent murder is one of their own, living among them. In the midst of the murder talk, someone mentions that one man’s fields are overrun by fireweed.

“We live in constant drought,” the narrator says. “Weeds show apathy. Weeds take what wheat needs. And like gossip, weeds spread. If a farmer doesn’t take care of the problem, they become someone else’s problem.”

The book begins with David Abrams’ story, “Red, White, and Butte,” no doubt chosen for its perfectly noirish opening line, “Marlowe was dead and that was fine by me,” and which happens to use a name famous in crime-novel circles.

Jamie Ford sets his story, “The Dive,” on the mean streets of Glendive, while Gwen Florio, in “Trailer Trash,” has some fun with a bloody tale involving, of all things, members of the graduate writing program at the University of Montana.

The editors set their stories in a van full of strippers rolling down Highway 2 (Grady) and a projected ski resort near Lolo (Graff) where the caretaker, a native of Mumbai, attempts to deal with would-be arsonists.

My favorite story, though, was “Custer’s Last Stand,” by Debra Magpie Earling, the title of the story being the name of a fast-food joint on the outskirts of Polson that serves coffee drinks with names like SacaJoewea and Joeranimo, with a Wednesday special of “scalped” potatoes.

Earling, a Bitterroot Salish and a member of the Flathead Nation, writes tense, touchy prose that catches the clash of cultures on the Flathead Reservation, but she goes beyond noir to include elements of magical realism, perfect for dealing with myths and the mysterious powers of a certain Indian elder.

“If they want to come back for Volume 2,” Graff said of the publishers, “we’ve got the material.”

That’s easy to believe, having read this book. Let’s hope the publishers do come back.