A new collection of noir fiction features all sorts of miscreants finding their way through this part of Florida
When we watch a movie, it shouldn’t matter whether we’ve visited the place where it was filmed. After all, a story is a story, and a good one will command our attention regardless of our familiarity with its setting.
Still, it’s kinda fun to make that direct link. I loved the movie "Dolphin Tale," but it was neat all the same to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (where one of my daughters is interning this summer) and see the rooms where Winter’s story was so lovingly captured on film.
That same connected feeling registered with me several times when I read "Tampa Bay Noir," a new collection of short fiction stories that, as the title suggests, are all set in Tampa Bay communities.
The anthology is part of a series published by Akashic Books. All the volumes feature noir stories based in specific locales. You can start with "Addis Ababa Noir" and read all the way through to "Zagreb Noir," with stops in Dallas, Las Vegas and Paris, to name just a few, in between.
I’m sure those volumes are admirably stocked with stories of local detectives and villains, victims and crimes. But they would be hard pressed to compete with the Tampa Bay version, which features original fiction from 15 authors.
For one thing, this collection has a huge advantage just because of its setting. Anything is believable in the land of Florida Man.
In fact, given the abundance of strange real crime in Tampa Bay, "it can be tough to make anything up," series editor Colette Bancroft writes in the introduction. But these authors accepted the challenge, finding "inspiration in its (Tampa Bay’s) darker corners."
(Bancroft is the longtime books editor at the Tampa Bay Times, and her reviews are frequently published in the Star-Banner’s Sunday arts section. She also contributes a story to this volume.)
Michael Connelly gets the noir party started in Tampa’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where the stately old houses still have back stairways "for the help." In his story, a thief has made off with a valuable painting that had been hanging in one of those gilded parlors.
From there we go to a run-down bar in Tierre Verde, a haunted (sort of) house on Davis Islands, and the surf of Indian Rocks Beach.
On my first trip to Florida, traveling alone as a college sophomore, I spent a night eating and drinking at the famous Hurricane Seafood Restaurant on Pass-a-Grille Beach. My nighttime walk on the sand felt magical. I was in paradise.
Lee Taylor drinks at the same place and walks the same stretch of beach in Sterling Watson’s story, "Extraordinary Things." But he meets a decidedly different end than I did.
The joy of that Florida night was followed by agony the next day, when food poisoning kept me trapped inside my motel room near downtown St. Petersburg. My room sounds a lot like the one that serves as home for Andrea Noble, the down and out freelance journalist who is the main character in Sarah Gerard’s story. I think our hotels are even on the same street.
Working from that room, Noble (good name for a reporter!) tracks down a has-been TV preacher while eating beef jerky and strawberry ice cream for dinner. And I thought my nights were rough.
The book is full of sunsets, of course, and palm fronds rustling in the breeze. A dad and his 13-year-old son work on their sunburns at Clearwater Beach. It all registers as familiar Florida; you can practically hear the margaritas mixing in the Tiki bar blender.
Some of the settings and characters are only partially familiar. A man rides out a hurricane with carnival workers in Gibsonton. I’ve done the former, but never while in the company of the latter. A Clearwater Beach yacht club has "walls and walls of windows that look out onto the serene mangrove bay." I’ve enjoyed that kind of view, though not from a private club.
As for the crime …well, let’s just say Tim Dorsey finds a use for Hula-Hoops that the toy’s creators would not sanction. And a grifter who seduces and then sponges off women takes one Viagra too many.
The star of book, though, isn’t the writers or the characters or the crime. It’s Florida — the parts we know, the parts we’ve heard about, the parts we hope to see some day.
Outsiders think the state is a joke, Lisa Unger’s main character says at one point in her story. "But those of us who really know it, we keep the secret of its savage beauty."
Contact Jim Ross at email@example.com