Black on Blonde

Where's the best place in the Twin Cities to murder a drifter?

The Gopher Bar and Cafe, stranded on the far eastern edge of downtown St. Paul, seems like the perfect spot to meet the editors of Twin Cities Noir. After all, the squat brick structure with a sign on the front door that reads "Sierra Club Sucks," owns the distinction of being the only watering hole to rate two mentions in the 15-story collection.

The bar makes its first cameo in "Bums," William Kent Krueger's tale of two down-on-their-heels alcoholics who camp along the West Side Flats of the Mississippi River. The older bum, a former newspaper reporter, intends to kill an afternoon getting drunk at the Gopher Bar. That plan is upended when he learns from the bartender that his drinking buddy has been killed.

The Gopher Bar plays a more significant role in the collection's final entry, Chris Everheart's "Chili Dog." The story's protagonist, a disgruntled fledgling mobster named Davy, stops in the watering hole every day on his lunch break to devour one of its signature Coney Islands—"a chili dog piled so high with toppings that you have to eat it with a knife and a fork," in Everheart's words. Not surprisingly, this particular culinary pit stop doesn't end very well for Davy.

I'm slated to meet Julie Schaper and Steven Horwitz, the editors of Twin Cities Noir, at this apparently infamous establishment. But at 4:00 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon, prime time for most businesses that make money by selling alcohol, the Gopher Bar is inexplicably closed. No sign on the door suggests when—or if—the establishment might reopen.

Owing to this unforeseen development, the three of us are forced to relocate to a Blink Bonnie sandwich shop across the street. Coney Islands and beer give way to bottled water and coffee. A metal sidewalk table stands in for the (presumably) dank bar. Not exactly the ideal setting to discuss noir fiction and the seedy underbelly of the Twin Cities.

Schaper and Horwitz at least look the part, dressed in clothes that range in hue from gray to black, despite the 80-degree-plus temperature. Both are veterans of the local publishing scene. Schaper is president of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, a St. Paul-based company that reps dozens of independent publishing houses. Horwitz markets books for several local and national publishers and has been in the business for 25 years. They laugh loudly and frequently, and tend to finish each other's sentences, suggesting a working relationship that will not end in the grisly manner of most of the collection's stories.

Twin Cities Noir is the ninth entry in a series created by New York-based Akashic Books. Starting with Brooklyn in 2004, Akashic devoted subsequent editions to Baltimore, Dublin, and Chicago. Schaper says that she was approached about creating a Twin Cities volume by Akashic founder (and Girls Against Boys bass player) Johnny Temple. She then roped in Horwitz, whom she's known for a decade. The collection features well-established novelists such as Judith Guest and Pete Hautman, but also some lesser-known writers. Everheart, for instance, had not been previously published. Schaper and Horwitz discovered him through a contact at the Once Upon a Crime bookstore.

Schaper and Horwitz operated with a very loose definition of noir. "If every story in the collection had shadows and ceiling fans, it would be a boring collection," says Horwitz.

"We got a real mix," adds Schaper. "We got some classic noir type things. Then things that are arguably not very noir, but in a way they're Minnesota noir."

Indeed, the Land of 10,000 Lakes might seem a peculiar locale for hard-boiled fiction. The hard-drinking dicks and morally loose, top-heavy blondes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett would likely be a bit bored in Linden Hills. But the contrast between the stereotype of bland Scandinavian living and lurid violence is often what makes these stories intriguing. The best pieces in the collection turn the clichés of the genre on their head.

Brad Zellar's "Better Luck Next Time" is a portrait of a man whose life has been ruined by the criminally inclined kids that he ran with growing up. But its decidedly non-noirish jumping-off point is a pair of purloined tickets to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The protagonist keeps trying to eke out a normal middle-class existence, but his childhood associates are continuously mucking things up.

One morning six years ago, I woke to the hysterical racket of crows, and from my kitchen window saw Randy Chung crucified to the picnic table in my backyard. He'd been stripped to his appalling bikini briefs and shot once through the head, apparently (this was determined later) in my garage and sometime before he was nailed to the table. I don't suppose I need to tell you that it's difficult for a respectable man's reputation to survive that sort of scandal.

Despite the unseemly subject matter—a tire-iron beatdown, a pen stabbing—the stories are often surprisingly funny. K.J. Erickson's tale of a trio of misfits toiling at the Minneapolis impound lot during snow emergencies nicely captures the dark humor lurking in that particular ring of hell. Their revenge on an uppity Porsche owner involves the creative deployment of two cans of paint supposedly left over from the adornment of First Avenue's famous black walls.

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