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The city’s gritty, criminal underbelly has redefined the dark, artistic vision known as Boston noir
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 21, 2009

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When I was growing up in Roslindale a few decades back — among tribes of ignorant, second-generation immigrant kids whose favorite words began with “f” and “n” and who liked to torture small animals and beat up small children before they moved on to their future vocations as petty criminals, dead dope users, or real-estate agents — it didn’t occur to me that this was a setting rich in literary and cinematic potential.

Nor did it a few years later, when my neighbors and others from Southie and Charlestown and Dorchester disgraced themselves by bonding with knuckle-draggers like School Committee member Louise Day Hicks and City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil in violently protesting school busing in proto-Teabag know-nothingism.

Nor did it in the later ’70s — surely the ugliest decade in Boston if not United States history — when, working as a security guard, I watched in awe and horror as hundreds of drunks stormed out of the Mad Hatter on “Drink and Drown Wednesday” a few blocks from the D Street Project and beat the shit out of each other with fists and bottles and crutches, and then slumped homeward when the real cops arrived.

This grief and mayhem did not resemble the kind that charmed me on the movie screen. Unlike similar scenarios set in Los Angeles in film noirs like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, I did not find these experiences redolent of jacaranda blossoms, rank and decadent secrets, or ominous sunsets.

They seemed merely squalid, terrifying, and unpleasant, and I didn’t have the vision to turn such scenes into art. Dennis Lehane, however, did, in Boston-set books like Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island, all three of which have been made into movies (the first two were Oscar nominees — with Mystic River winning a pair — and will be screened as part of the ongoing “Boston Noir” series at the Brattle Theatre; the third will be released next February). Not only did he transform Boston at its most debased, despondent, and melodramatic into the stuff of elegant bestsellers, but he also turned the city into a place that others recognize as possessing a certain character, mood, look, and feel — not unlike the LA of Chandler, Hammett, and Ellroy, but a lot different, too.

Lehane’s books have inspired others to tap into the same sordid mine of misery, hope, disillusionment, and tenacity that has comprised the more benighted neighborhoods of the city and the more problematic corners of its psyche. Those writers include John Dufresne, Don Lee, and Itabari Njeri, whose stories are included in Boston Noir, a newly published collection that Lehane edited and which he and his contributors will “launch” at a party Saturday at the Boston Public Library, as part of the Boston Book Festival.

Note that the volume Boston Noir is just one in the Akashic Books “Noir” series of 40 or so collections, ranging from Baltimore Noir to Bombay Noir. No matter; as Lehane writes in his introduction, Boston noir is special. Noir in general, he points out, is “working-class tragedy.” And not necessarily involving the traditional conventions of “fedoras . . . cigarette smoke, huge whitewall tires, mournful jazz . . . and lots of shadows.”

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