Book Review: Santa Cruz Noir


Santa Cruz Noir
Edited by Susie Bright

Akashic Books, 2018

It’s officially summer! I started my summer reading with Santa Cruz Noir, a collection of new noir stories, all set in Santa Cruz. I’m headed there later this summer for a family wedding! I hope I don’t get murdered. Because a lot of people do get murdered in Santa Cruz Noir, where Part 1 is called “Murder Capital of the World” and where the city map provided in the front illustrates the various neighborhoods and hot spots with chalked bodies.

Susie Bright’s snazzy, sexy introduction is a great read in itself. It begins:

Every town has its noir-ville. It’s easy to find in Santa Cruz.

We live in what’s called “paradise,” where you can wake up in a pool of blood with the first pink rays of the sunrise peeking out over our mountain range. The dewy mists lift from the bay. Don’t hate us because we’re beautiful—we were made that way, like Venus rising off the foam with a brick in her hand. We can’t help it if you fall for it every time.

Our Book Review editor here at Escape Into Life, Seana Graham, has a story in this book, called “Safe Harbor,” an ironic title. Her sentences are clean and spare, as in good detective fiction, though in this story, the focal character may not detect everything: “The sex was good but not great. Ray thought afterward that maybe Jazz was holding something back too. Those green eyes had to mean something.” Ah, the mystery of her green eyes lingers.

The narrator of “The Big Creep,” by Elizabeth McKenzie, is a fifteen year old girl, who just happens to be a private investigator. She understands Santa Cruz:

Here’s the good and bad thing about Santa Cruz: it’s not a place where everybody’s lived here forever and a newcomer gets the once-over. No, it’s a city where anybody can come fit in for a while, and move away before you’ve even had a chance to say hello. It’s a city full of transients, and I don’t mean the ones on the streets. I mean, you don’t always know your neighbors and you don’t ask questions.

This one breaks your heart and also does subtle things. It takes place in an area called “The Circles” and keeps its narrator running in circles figuring out who’s really the biggest creep and what’s to be done about it.

I loved McKenzie’s novel The Portable Veblen, where the main character has a very special relationship with a squirrel, possibly involving actual conversation of some sort. But the animal communication in Santa Cruz Noir comes from Liza Monroy in “Mischa and the Seal,” and, yes, the main character has a very special relationship with a seal. In this story, as in “Monarchs and Maidens,” by Margaret Elysia Garcia, we sense the supernatural at work and/or the murderous or vengeful impulses in Nature as well as human nature, or the need to protect Mother Nature from human nature.

But there’s also plenty of human-on-human crime. There are intricate plots, sketchier plots, dubious motives, inscrutable motives, downright creepiness, edgy stuff, and wonderful humor. Something for everyone’s taste in noir. Me, I got totally wrapped up in “Treasure Island,” by Micah Perks, a story made up of “Good Neighbor” posts, one of those social media neighborhood watch sites. It had a Little Library in it…for a while. And an axe. I also got sucked into “Death and Taxes,” by Jill Wolfson, with a great character, Cody the sign dancer. And Milo, the donut shop guy, who notices “a dot of red jelly” on the lip of his co-worker. You ache for these people. You wish their lives weren’t so….noir.

Except that noir makes for such good reading. Santa Cruz Noir is part of the international Akashic Noir Series, a concept by Tim McLoughlin and Johnny Temple. Find your favorite city, and there’s probably an Akashic Noir book for it. I wonder if they’d let me edit Normal Noir?

Pun on Normal.

—Kathleen Kirk (Normal, Illinois)

Santa Cruz Noir at Akashic Books 

Akashic Noir Series

Susie Bright’s Blog