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‘Miami Noir: The Classics’ shines darkly

Les Standiford selects 19 fine examples of crime fiction by authors like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard.

Miami hasn’t been around for long, as cities go — just a little over a century. But it’s been fertile ground for crime fiction almost from the beginning.

The evidence is clear in Miami Noir: The Classics. Most of the anthologies in Akashic Books' Noir series feature new stories set in a single city or area, but the Classics volumes reach back to the past.

Miami Noir: The Classics is edited by Les Standiford. A longtime director of the creative writing MFA program at Florida International University and, more recently, director of Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise, he knows Florida writers. With 24 books, including crime fiction, he’s a Florida writer himself.

His choices for the 19 stories in this volume are fascinating, starting with the first and oldest story, a 1925 piece by a writer you might not associate with dark crime fiction: Marjory Stoneman Douglas. In ’25, the woman who became known as the savior of the Everglades was a young Miami Herald reporter, and she also sold fiction to pulp magazines.

This story, Pineland, proves she could write a bang-up first sentence: “Larry Gibbs was thankful that the roughness of the road took all his attention, because he had no idea what to say to a woman whose son had just been hanged.” The rest of the story combines gorgeous descriptions of wild Florida with a stark tale of the hardships of those who tried to tame that land.

The late Charles Willeford is revered as the father of the “Miami school” of crime fiction, and Saturday Night Special, first published in 1988, will show you why. It begins with a breezy, almost goofy tone as its narrator and three other young men who live in a singles-only apartment building plan a night out. (Willeford’s ’80s wardrobe descriptions are hilarious.)

Hank is the group’s acknowledged ladies' man, and, after he declares the most difficult place to pick up women is a drive-in theater, the other three bet him he can’t pick up a woman at one within an hour and a half. He does — and the story pivots on a single sentence from silly to deeply disturbing.

Book excerpts demonstrate the skills of a couple of masters. One is the tragic demise of Tea Cake, from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The other is The Odyssey, Elmore Leonard’s contribution to the legendary 1995 collaborative novel Naked Came the Manatee, which shows off Leonard’s ability to tell a story almost entirely through darkly funny dialogue.

Some fine contemporary Miami writers contribute older stories to this collection, too. John Dufresne’s Lemonade and Paris Buns from 1996 is a poignant gem of economy and subtlety. Standiford’s contribution, Tahiti Junk Shop from 1999, recounts an encounter between a North Miami Beach retiree and a slick fellow in a limousine, with entirely surprising results.

Miami Noir: The Classics cover
Miami Noir: The Classics cover [ Akashic Books ]

Miami Noir: The Classics

Edited by Les Standiford

Akashic Books, 400 pages, $16.95

Times Virtual Festival of Reading

Starting Nov. 12, watch an interview with Les Standiford at festivalofreading.com.

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