Black on Blonde

If Julie Schaper and Steven Horwitz offer to show you their backyard wood chipper, don't say "yes"

If Julie Schaper and Steven Horwitz offer to show you their backyard wood chipper, don't say "yes"

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.

Like other entries in Akashic's noir series, each story is loosely associated with a particular neighborhood in the Twin Cities, from Frogtown to Linden Hills. Many local landmarks get shoutouts: Runyon's bar, Murray's steakhouse, the Viking Bar, Foshay Tower. "We kind of got lucky, because we didn't tell the authors to write in particular neighborhoods," says Schaper. "We just had them write it and then we figured out where the neighborhoods were. And it worked. It divvied up really nicely between St. Paul and Minneapolis, plus one up north."

The story set "up north" is "Hi, I'm God," by Steven Thayer, author of the crime novels Wolf Pass and The Weatherman. The narrative unwinds in Duluth, chronicling high school student Pudge Abercrombie's violent drowning in Lake Superior. The story then jumps ahead 25 years to when a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Abercrombie hijacks the local television airwaves and declares that he is God.

God opened a desk drawer, pulled out a pack of Marlboro in the box, stuck a cigarette in his mouth, and lit up. He blew a long puff of smoke at the camera. He coughed, a nasty smoker's cough, and then cleared his throat. "I think it's fair to say that you people eat too much, you drink too much, and you watch too much television. And you better cut it out."

Temple was initially reluctant to include a Duluth-based story in a collection that is, after all, titled Twin Cities Noir. "We had Johnny read it," Horwitz recalls. "He read it and he said maybe you can make a couple of references to the Twin Cities. He loved the story."

There was only one commissioned piece that didn't make the cut—Horwitz's own. "Julie read it," he recalls. "She hemmed and hawed a little bit and said, 'I don't think it's noir enough.' We had a little tough time there for a minute or two. That story will see the light of day one of these days."

After finishing our (non-alcoholic) drinks, we wander back over to the Gopher Bar. A rather disheveled gentleman, who looks to have spent many productive hours perched on barstools, is attempting to enter the establishment. Upon realizing that the bar is closed, he mumbles that there is a "private party" going on inside. The bar is, by all appearances, dark and empty. If we strangled him in the parking lot and pried open the door with a crowbar, there's no telling when anyone would find the body.