Larry Correia & Kacey Ezell
(Baen, May 2019, hc, 336 pp.)
Reviewed by Robert L Turner III
This anthology put together by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell is a collection tied together by the titular noir esthetic. Each of the stories takes some element of the classic gumshoe detective and gives it a twist. These inspirations vary from mere atmospheric to femme fatal in space. This is an excellent collection, with the worst story a solid contribution and a couple entries that are truly wonderful. The TL:DR version of the review is buy this if you have any love of the old noir stories and movies.
Below I will discuss each story, but since the genre almost requires a twist at the end, I will be vague in my description so as not to spoil the surprise.
“Ain’t No Sunshine” by Christopher L. Smith and Michael J. Ferguson Kicks off the anthology and is the most conventional of the stories. Slade, a PI on an older space station is pulled into a conflict involving possible embezzlement and murder. The fact that he has a personal/romantic history with most of the parties involved quickly moves the investigation from a professional to a personal matter. While the story is solid, anyone familiar with the genre will see the final twist easily and there is nothing new to find in the story. In my opinion this is the weakest of the stories. I don’t mean this as a condemnation of Smith and Ferguson’s work, it is a good read and its placement makes structural and narrative sense. I just wish to emphasize that the collection grows in quality from this good start.
David Weber returns to the Honorverse in “Recruiting Exercise.” Set in prerevolutionary Haven, a young woman who needs money decides to visit a speakeasy and try out prostitution as a way to pay for a sick younger brother. Once there, she meets the expected cast of unsavory characters and inadvertently becomes involved in an Aprilist attack. The story is exactly what one would expect from David Weber and fans will not be disappointed. For those who are unfamiliar with the Honorverse, it may not resonate as well.
“Spoils of War” by Kacey Ezell explicitly evokes the Noir feel, attributing part of the setting to a deliberate mid-twentieth century aesthetic chosen by a contractor and continuing with an in-world discussion of the genre. In it, Ray Martel is approached by a female client who wants to find something her brother hid prior to his being murdered by a crime lord. Ray, who owes his life to her brother, goes along. As is to be expected, there is a twist that ties things up nicely. This piece feels very much in tune with the collection’s theme and the POV from the femme fatale is a nice touch. My only complaint is that in referring to the war where Ray and Eddie met, the author uses the generic “the enemy.” This loss of specificity tended to pull me out of the setting.
Steve Diamond’s “The Privileges of Violence” is set in an alternate universe in which the Tsar was never overthrown and in which magic plays an important part. Kristoph Vals is an operative for the Directorate S and intends to climb the bureaucratic ladder until one night he rescues a woman, Helena, from what appears to be muggers. She tells him that she is on the trail of words of power from a golem that have been stolen from her family. In a mixture of greed, lust and perhaps humanity, he decides to help. Diamond does a good job of creating a rich textured world without succumbing to the temptation to over-explain. Reading the story, the pattern is clear, but the details and shifts in world building help to keep you guessing. The ending is appropriate and feels right.
“A Goddess in Red” by Griffin Barber is one of the stories more loosely connected thematically to the whole. An immortal necromancer is convinced by her lover, Yezzul, to steal a circlet from the tomb of the Duchess of White Boar. Once she reaches her final goal, she learns that not everything works out as planned. This story is better described as a tale of the macabre than noir, but it does share elements of betrayal and revenge that make is a legitimate inclusion. The first-person voice and word choice paint a vivid picture and the story concludes with a satisfying ending.
Hinkley Correia is the daughter of Larry Correia and if there were any fears that her contribution is included due to nepotism, they will disappear once they read her story. In “Kuro.” Kazue Hikubo is a detective able to see spirits and memories, but leads a miserable, lonely life. When a lovely woman who reminds him of a lost love comes looking for help in finding her missing brother, he takes the case, despite misgivings. Correia does a very good job of creating an interesting world and then playing well within the confines of that reality. The noir feel and aesthetic is strong in both the main plotline and the feel of the story. The pieces of the puzzle fit together nicely, creating a conclusion that feels natural and right.
Veteran author Laurell K. Hamilton adds her short story “Sweet Seduction” to this collection. Her Anita Blake tale involves a disapproving grandmother who is certain that her son is being magically controlled. Despite her dislike for the client, Blake is convinced to evaluate the situation and so visits Violet Carlin’s bakery. Once there she discovers that Violet is an excellent cook and that the magic involved is not what the grandmother believes. This is one of the most emotionally powerful stories of the collection as Hamilton ties personal demons, interpersonal relationships and generational expectations to the main plotline.
“A String of Pearls” by Alistair Kimble is a dark futuristic piece that melds post-apocalyptic sentiment, mystical elements, noir aesthetic, and a tone that makes the story the darkest of the collection. The story opens with the narrator Elizabeth traveling to New Orleans on Mace’s command wearing the titular string of pearls. As she travels, she meets Vic, an old lover and upon arrival is thrust into a world of violence, gangsters and nanotech. The story is dark, complex and engaging. The greatest weakness is the complexity of the worldbuilding. Balancing telling enough versus too much is a difficult tightrope to walk. The author falls on the too little side in my opinion. Others may see it differently.
“Honey Fall,” set in a magical Colorado, is Sarah A. Hoyt’s entry and opens with Honey awakening in the room of a missing man. She is the daughter of a crime lord and once she comes to herself, she has to reconstruct her missing past and discover what has happened to Donald Griffin, the owner of the room. As she tries to learn what happened, she runs into her old lover as well as her less than stable brother. While the big reveal is a fairly easy catch, the story is tightly written, well-paced and all the pieces work together well. In a lot of ways, this story works as an inversion of the noir aesthetic and is a very enjoyable read.
“Three Kates” by Mike Massa is set in World War II England. In it, Hendriksen, a German spy, is confronted by a woman who seems to know all about him and his mission. When he begins to see things that don’t make sense, he starts to question both his mission and his alliances. Following a confrontation with another faction of the Nazi secret services, he is given a choice to enter a larger, magical world. Massa writes a detailed, image rich, story and I found it to be very engaging and polished.
Patrick M. Tracy creates a dark vivid fantasy world in “Worth the Scars of Dying.” The narrator, a demon-touched necromancer who owns a small coffeeshop, comes to the rescue of a damsel in distress. Before long, he finds himself on the run from cultists who want the girl back. His increasingly desperate flight forces him to make some difficult decisions. Tracy creates a fascinating story with a noir feel that fits perfectly into the world he has created. The story is fresh, and the final revelation is both logical and satisfying.
“The Frost Queen” by Robert Buettner is a simply amazing story. On the surface, the story is a straightforward tale of two teenagers who become infatuated with each other. In fact, the story is nuanced and layered with elements that remind me of the best of Heinlein’s short stories. Jason Cho, a native born moon resident, meets a visiting performer and quickly becomes infatuated with her. After the last performance, Isis convinces Jason to take her outside to the surface of the moon. When an accident makes a lark into a tragedy, the story takes an unexpected turn. Buettner writes with a clear easy tone that hides the constant symbolism embedded into the text. Throughout the story, Buettner contrasts open and closed space. As the story develops, this imagery becomes a metaphor for the lives of the protagonists and the conclusion is surprising and resolves the metaphoric tension perfectly.
Larry Correia completes the collection with “Bombshell.” Set a generation after the conclusion of the Grimnoir Chronicles, Henry, the non-magical son of two of the Grimnoir knights, is a rookie cop on the hunt of a magical killer. After convincing a fellow officer, Rebecca Langford, to join him he uses logic and street smarts to find the killer. The noir element is both thematic and plot related and works well. The final coda adds an ironic twist that forms a nice conclusion to the collection.
Robert Turner is a professor and longtime SF/F fan.