A short story is the perfect medium for busy people, and Jewish Noir, heralded as the first book of its kind, presents a month’s worth of short stories to delight any reader of the genre. Editor Kenneth Wishnia sums up the lure: “[ . . . ] a majority of the world’s Christians are taught that if you follow the right path, everything will turn out well for you in the end. In Judaism, you can follow the right path and still get screwed (just ask Job). That’s noir.”
One dazzler in the book is “Living Underwater,” by B.K. Stevens. Anyone who’s ever worked for a control freak will recognize this characterization of Helen. She’s the new associate dean who’s changing the rules for college professors, Sam among them. It isn’t enough that she wants all syllabi redone:
“If you can’t document something,” Helen cut in, “how do you know it’s real? You can tell yourself that you’re doing a good job, but why should anyone believe you? Luckily, I’m here now, and I’ll show you how to document what you do.”
Doesn’t sound noir-ish? Just wait ‘til you see what happens to Sam.
Elsewhere, Michele Lang pulled me into “Sucker’s Game” with these opening lines:
“You’re the people killed Christ. Right?” I was already having a rotten time in third grade, and this gigantic, sweaty clown on my bus home from school wasn’t helping. He smelled like onions and coffee, a weird combo for a sixth-grader.
Said bully isn’t the only male posing danger as Lang moves her story along. “I knew he knew I was under the bed. [ . . . ] I was his target.” Talk about scary!
Travis Richardson presents the oddly titled “Quack & Dwight” focusing on a psychologist named Ben and his precocious eight-year-old patient Dwight Adolf Lange. “Nobody names a kid Adolf by accident,” says Ben. I liked this story of obsession, but I’m not sure a seasoned psychologist would be as “breathless” or “speechless” as Ben is when speaking with Dwight or his mom.
Included with new works by Jewish and non-Jewish writers is a story by the late Yente Serdatsky. Her tale, “A Simkhe” or “A Celebration,” originally appeared in 1912, but I had no trouble visualizing the group of friends listening to Semyonov talk about the beautiful Miss B, with this delicious line: “The women who once hated her got married to the men who were once in love with her.” The story gets serious, but ends up having a magical effect on Semyonov’s listeners.
Noir can be approached in so many ways. Pick any story. A lost Romanov treasure figures into Wendy Hornsby’s “The Legacy.” A biologist named Karen who studies eye color inhabits “Blood Diamonds,” by Melissa Yi. Check out this sentence: “Nestled on a bed of ice, four freshly harvested eyeballs stared up at her: two hazel, one green, and one blue. A great mini-mystery is “One of Them” by Alan Orloff whose characters battle against odds while trying to make things right.
All is not dark and edgy in these stories. Rabbi Adam D. Fisher inserts some humor with “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi.” He cleverly voices the mother in a monologue: “Rabbi, you don’t know me. I don’t go to services and I’m not religious but I’m proud to be Jewish. One day at work, this guy started talking about someone who tried to ‘Jew him down.’ Boy, did I give him an earful.”
A couple of the works were a little strong for my taste, but one was so suspenseful I had to turn to the end to see what happens. A man bursts into a synagogue escaping from someone trying to kill him in Charles Ardai’s “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die.” No one can call the police because phones aren’t to be used on Yom Kippur. The killer breaks into the synagogue and demands to know which of a dozen old men, now all looking quite alike, is his prey.
These stories are just a preview of what’s in store for readers of Jewish Noir. The book’s back cover suggests it as a conversation starter about prejudice and ethnicity, but I read it as a series of masterful crime stories. Either way you choose, this is definitely an anthology to wrap your senses around.