For some, Dallas evokes thoughts of “Who shot J.R.?” Or President Kennedy’s ill-fated motorcade, the grassy knoll, the book depository. Sprawling, hot, filled with big money and bigger hair, air-conditioned environs and gauche McMansions as far as the eye can see. “Dallas Noir,” edited by David Hale Smith, addresses both the lore and reality of the Lone Star State’s third-largest city and its fringe neighborhoods, eschewing the overwrought stereotypes non-Texans have come to expect by filling in the blanks:
– Yes, there’s big money and big hair. But it’s as much uniform as it is costume; it hides secrets.
– Yes, there are sprawling McMansion subdivisions and other obnoxious, pretentious housing. What’s more interesting are the peddlers involved in their development and upkeep and the bodies buried in the yard.
– All that air conditioning helps keep brows and pits dry while discussing the finer points of having your wealthy parents euthanized before the Bush estate tax cuts expire.
The latest entry in Akashic Books’ award-winning noir anthology series doesn’t disappoint, featuring a Texas-sized serving of writing’s heavy hitters and satisfying short fiction.
Dallas is a see-and-be-seen town. This is the biggest feature of each of the collection’s stories. No one drives a truck or car—they drive Aston Martins or BMWs or vintage Ford trucks, because what’s a ride worth if you’re not flaunting your brand (or being judged by it)? Characters are rated by their clothing (or lack of style), the quality of their skin, their body art. So pervasive is this staple of Dallas life there’s an entire story built around the snap judgment: “Night Work” by Clay Reynolds, a standout piece in the collection that drives home the point with a fluid third-person narrative that slips in and out of vantage points of different Dallas night owls from all walks of life. No one is immune to said judgment. Not to making it, or having one made.
“Dallas Noir” is broken into three sections: “Cowboys,” “Rangers” and “Mavericks.” Each section is as subtly different from the others as those titles. The devil’s in the details. Isn’t it always in a good piece of noir? The collection starts out with the deceptive quiet of suburban minutiae in Matt Bondurant’s “Hole-Man.” A young husband and father obsesses over the number of mosquitos in his neighborhood, accidentally stumbling upon a previously hidden seedy abyss in his anonymous subdivision. It’s a quiet but appropriate start for delving into the Dallas underbelly at large.
The organizing principle of the “Cowboys” section is loneliness. The solitary life. Isolation. “The Clearing,” by Emma Rathbone, the collection’s first first-person piece, is silent enough to hear a pin drop but packs one of the anthology’s biggest punches. A recently freed felon visits the home she used to live in, terrorizing the narrator and his mother with her less-than-genteel attitude. No shots are fired. Everyone lives. But the threat is real and speaks to the kind of insanity that can descend upon those of us walled off for too long.
“Rangers” includes more traditional noir fare: Stetson-wearing lawmen, loose and lost women, money-hungry hucksters of myriad color and status. The aforementioned “Night Work” fits here, in the center of the book, as a kind of wonderful anchor. “The Private Room,” by Merritt Tierce, kicks off the section, and at first blush—and knowing what we do about Dallas businessmen’s penchants for tittie bars—it seems like our narrator is talking about working a no-rules back room at club. Really, she’s a server in a high-class, high-stress restaurant, lost in a world of hard work and harder drugs and sleaze. A visceral gem.
“Mavericks” may seem a bit like “Cowboys,” but let’s look at another definition for Maverick—one not popularized by the McCains and Palins of the world: “An unbranded range animal.” The characters of this section’s stories careen through life, unmoored and directionless. This is their strongest asset and often their downfall. Harry Hunsicker’s “The Stickup Girl” shows us just how far—in emotion and location—an abuse-filled childhood can send a girl. Catherine Cuellar’s “Dog Sitter” is a glimpse at the gypsy-esque lifestyle that an unmarried woman can settle into while trying to scratch out an existence. And Jonathan Woods’ “Swingers Anonymous” starts with a [g bang and ends with a whimper.
Behind the veneer of luxury labels and $100 haircuts and ostentatious lifestyles, beneath the anonymity of sprawling shopping centers and subdivisions and chain restaurants, under the Stetsons and cowboy boots, all of Dallas whimpers. Each story in “Dallas Noir” invites us in for a glimpse at these sad, sordid lives, often leaving us wondering what happens next, where’s the rest, the way passersby on Interstate 30 once wondered “What happened here” when glimpsing Danny Faulkner’s half-built abandoned luxury condos—a real-life Dallas noir story.
But don’t go thinking we’re the experts on Dallas’s dark side–we had to opportunity to bend the ear of David Hale Smith himself. Our own Nicolette Kittinger had the interview:
David Hale Smith: Where are you calling from?
Criminal Class Press: Chicago, Illinois.
DHS: Chicago, Illinois! Great town! I love Chicago.
CCP: It’s a great city. It’s a fantastic city. Although, the collection sort of makes me wonder about Dallas a little bit. I’ve never really considered Dallas. All you hear about up here anyway is Austin. You hear a lot about Austin as a fun place to be. But Dallas seems really interesting.
DHS: Well you just totally made my day because that was one of my hopes with this anthology. I grew up here and Dallas, as I mentioned in my introduction, it kind of gets painted by two identifiers which are the horrible tragedy that happened here fifty years ago [the assassination of JFK], and then by the damned television shows!
CCP: Yes! I’ve never even seen Dallas, and still I hear the word Dallas and think, “Who shot J.R.”!
DHS: One of the great marketing efforts of the twentieth century.
CCP: How did you come to edit “Dallas Noir”?
DHS: Well, I guess you could say it was an inside job sort of. [Akashic Books publisher] Johnny Temple is an old friend of mine because of my work in the book publishing industry—I’m a literary agent. I represent a lot of writers that work in this genre, in the genres of noir fiction and mystery and crime and thriller, and like many things in publishing it helped that I had a connection to the publisher. I was really honored by the fact that he called me and invited me out to dinner, and we went out and talked about it, and he said, “I want you to be the editor” because of the fact that I’m from here and know the city really well and I’ve worked as an agent from here in the industry for a long time, but also the fact that I would be able to connect to some of the great writers—not only writers that he had heard of and writers from the trenches of crime fiction, but also publishing writers he hadn’t heard of who are here. That was really what I set out to do with this anthology.
CCP: What is it about Dallas that makes it such a great landscape for noir?
DHS: Dallas is a city of real contrasts. There’s an incredible amount of money here and the upper echelons with the money—both the individual families and among the business district here. There’s this incredible civic expansion that’s happening right now with new buildings being built downtown with art centers, arts districts, and symphony halls—these gorgeous testaments to the fact there’s a bit of a boom happening right now. On the other hand there’s a pretty large disparity to the population. There are some real big areas of need here, some poverty areas. And I think that those two worlds coming together in relatively tight geographic area makes it really interesting. Plus Dallas has a fascinating history, and it has sort of swept it under the rug. I think there are some skeletons in our closet here that haven’t yet been totally hidden away.
CCP: For the uninformed, what are some details that are “swept under the rug”?
DHS: A lot of people don’t know, for example, that this used to be and in some ways still is a real gambling mecca. There were huge underground dice games and card games and even illicit casino houses that operated here. There also used to be six city blocks basically in the downtown Dallas area that was essentially a red light district that was operating right out in the open. And people seem to have forgotten that. There’s a lot of great material for noir fiction. And let’s not forget that we have some pretty high-profile sports teams—there’s a lot of flash and cash here and all the sorts of dirty stuff that comes along with that.
CCP: Dallas definitely seems like a big city for reinvention by sweeping things under the rug. And I think a lot of that comes through in some of the stories you selected. On that note, what were your criteria for selecting authors and stories for the collection?
DHS: I put out the word to the writers who I knew and was already connected with that I wanted some new stories. Every story in this collection is an original, never been published before. And I wanted people to do Dallas in a noir setting so that we could take a look at our city and see the kind of moral compromise that is inherent in all of good noir. And beyond that each story had to be in its own unique neighborhood—that’s part of the format of the anthology. The requirement is that no two stories can have the same primary setting. That’s why you see the maps in the front of the book that show the different bodies lying on different areas of town. Stories could be contemporary—and most of them are present day—but they could also be set in the past. So we have a few in there, two or three, that are really great historical noir set in Dallas.
CCP: Had you already chosen the three sections—Cowboys, Rangers, and Mavericks—before collecting stories?
DHS: My wife came up with the idea of using the three Dallas pro sports teams as our section breaks, which I love because of the obvious iconic multiple meanings behind those three words. It fell pretty naturally after deciding on that: Cowboys take the wild rides, mavericks break the rules and the rangers deal in tough work and nasty surprises. Of course you can find elements of all these in each story, really. That’s what’s great about noir.
CCP: There isn’t as much organized sports as I was expecting from a book about Dallas or about Texas. But there it is, I guess—
DHS: To be honest with you that’s part of why I think those names work so well. I thought I might get a story featuring the Dallas Cowboys, and I thought I might get something with the Mavericks because the Mavericks won an NBA championship just two years ago which was a huge deal for our city, and none of the writers went there. One of the stories features the old Texas Stadium, which is where the Cowboys used to play, which is obviously a big landmark and a great neighborhood for noir.
CCP: What was the most difficult part of the editorial process?
DHS: It’s always hard when you have more good stories submitted than you can use. Having to say no to some submissions, which, you know, comes with the territory, but it’s difficult. The other thing is that almost all of these writers are writers who have had successful publishing careers. But there were a few stories in there that needed to be edited not necessarily to make them better, but to make them more noir. And so having to give feedback and critique to well-known writers was a challenge, but it was also fun.
CCP: What was the most enjoyable part of the editorial process for you?
DHS: Getting to read these stories and seeing my city presented in fiction this way was a blast. It exceeded my expectations for what I thought would we get, and having a chance to work with all these writers. And, I have to say, probably the most fun is that there are three, stories in here by folks who have never had anything published before.
DHS: Yes. My goal when I set out was to have some big marquee names—which we definitely got with people like Ben Fountain and Matt Bondurant and Kathleen Kent—and then to have some new discoveries. Fran Hillyer, who was my former high school English teacher who was a huge influence on my life, has a story in here. It’s the first story she’s ever had published. Oscar Peña is a poet and he’s never had a story published. And Lauren Davis, that’s her first published story. She’s a student of Matt Bondurant who’s a professor at University of Texas at Dallas. So there are three people in here who, you know, this is their debut.
CCP: Hillyer was your high school English teacher?
CCP: I really enjoyed that piece—
DHS: Isn’t that fun? She did an amazing job. I took her out to lunch and told her that I had an assignment for her. [laughs] And she got an A on it.
CCP: That story is so chilling. It’s such an interesting look at type of moneyed person that populates Dallas and how they stay moneyed. It was a gut punch.
DHS: I think you’re right, and I agree with you wholeheartedly.
CCP: Was there one piece in particular in the collection that really surprised you?
DHS: I think the great thing about these stories is there are unexpected nasty turns in all of them, but in particular Ben Fountain’s. I’ve been friends with Ben for a long time, and he’s an incredible writer—no surprise there—but I wasn’t sure what kind of story he would deliver. His story, “The Realtor,” is just sort of the quintessential story. It’s so subtly brilliant because it’s so Dallas—because it’s about a real estate transaction! [The agent’s] a femme fatale, but she doesn’t kill the guy literally. The surprise of the ending is just so elegantly brilliant. And the other story that I think is such an amazing piece of writing and so depressingly dark in its way is Merritt Tierce’s “The Private Room.” I mean, that’s just a woman who is making cascading bad choices in a morally bankrupt world that she lives in—it’s like the classic definition of noir. There’s a downward spiral from which there is no escape. And I think Merritt, who wouldn’t call herself a noir writer, did a brilliant job with that story.
CCP: As a literary agent based in Dallas, and as someone who grew up there, do you find that you have a preference for Dallas-based (or born and bred) writers?
DHS: I never have, over the course of my career, been someone who chooses writers by my geography. I’ve ended up working with writers from here, but I’ve always tried to not be regionally selective. I want to be finding great stories and writers wherever they can be found. Another fun part about this was to have a chance to work with these writers specifically from here. There are so many wonderful writers in Dallas, but people don’t think of Dallas as a writers’ town, but actually it’s a really good place to get work done. It’s an easy place to live, and the cost of living—I wouldn’t say it’s inexpensive to live here, but it’s much lower cost of living than some of the other major metro areas, especially East Coast or West Coast. That was really gratifying. It’s been a blast.
CCP: What’s your favorite real-life example of a Dallas noir story?
DHS: [laughs] That’s a good question. I may…I may have to take the fifth! I think that the story that I mentioned in my introduction about Danny Faulkner. The most amazing thing about that story was that Danny Faulkner was really almost a fall guy for a bigger scheme, and to me that’s what makes it noir. Those guys, they were living so large and they were perpetrating just such bald-faced fraud right out in front of everybody, and they were doing it with the help of happy, backslapping bankers who were helping them rob everybody blind—including the American people eventually because of the bailout that followed.
But there’s another horrible story that happened in Dallas. There was a very prominent church leader here who was accused of murdering his wife. He was acquitted. The case has never been solved, and there’s never been anyone brought to justice over what happened. And his wife was tragically in a vegetative state for many, many years and eventually died. She was strangled on the floor of the garage and left for dead. [Her husband] Walker Railey was the main suspect, and they could never prove he did it. It’s sort of like the JonBenét Ramsey case, like everyone sort of thought “There’s nobody else who could’ve done this.” But you don’t know, and the justice system runs its course, and the results are the results, and that’s that. That happened in an incredibly prominent, wealthy Dallas neighborhood [Lake Highlands].
CCP: For readers who enjoy these Dallas stories, do you have any suggestions for others to check out?
DHS: If you haven’t read the novels from Harry Hunsicker, who has got a story in here, definitely want to check out Harry’s work. He is fantastic. And there was a writer named [Clinton] Howard Swindle, who has passed away or else I would’ve loved to have gotten a story from Howard. I’m not sure which of his books are still in print, but Howard Swindle wrote a couple of really great Dallas books. I still think the great Dallas crime novel has yet to be written, but Harry Hunsicker is a pretty great working writer who dives into the dirty side of Dallas pretty well.
CCP: What do you hope readers will understand about Dallas after reading this collection?
DHS: I hope they’ll see, first of all, remember, it’s fiction, so [laughs] I don’t want our Convention and Visitors Bureau here to be mad at me. Most people here are good people, and mostly good things are happening here. But I think what’s cool about this collection is it shows a real complexity of our city, and it shows a diversity of not just neighborhoods and locations but of people, and that’s Dallas. I mean Dallas is a huge, huge metropolis with a very diverse population and a lot going on here. And I think it’s a great city. I disagree with Larry McMurty. And it’s not a TV show!