The deep canyons and long valleys of western Montana throw shade until late in the day. The eastern plains lie flat and dull under the sun and when night comes all landmarks fall away into nothing. People drive bargains with the crooked and violence is the one language everyone speaks.
“Grit” is the best description of the collection of short stories compiled in “Montana Noir” because every single story has a thick skin of brutality, skeeviness, violence and just a dash of horror that makes the collection exceptionally good.
“Montana Noir” is part of Akashic Books Noir series which began in 2004 with “Brooklyn Noir,” while each collection contains new stories set in a specific geographic place. Each collection takes stories from writers who know the place, space, city, state or country and ask them to write a noir piece.
Montana was the setting of the first true noir novel as Butte was the inspiration for Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest,” which took the real-life story of the Anaconda Road massacre and turned it into an intricate hard-boiled novel about private detectives and shadowy corporate interests. The writers in "Montana Noir" took the concepts of trauma, fear and power and turned them up to 11.
Split into four sections titled “Copper Power,” “The Hi-Line,” “Custer County” and “Rivers Run,” editors James Grady and Keir Graff take Montana’s huge spaces and divide them into recognizable spaces. It makes for easy geographic reading but the overarching darkness of the tone never wavers.
Those territories make up the forged connections to Montana’s land. Without simplifying the vastness of the state and its varied cultures, Native peoples, ranchers, farmers, hippies, students, thinkers, writers and all sorts of others, “Montana Noir” does its best to shed light on the darkness that every person can reach to if pushed far enough.
Each author gets into that darkness a little differently. But even with 14 unique authors, the anthology never loses the sense of danger that makes good noir memorable. David Abrams, Caroline Patterson, Thomas McGuane, Janet Skeslien Charles, Sidner Larson, Yvonne Seng, James Grady, Jamie Ford, Carrie Le Seur, Gwen Florio, Walter Kirn, Eric Heidle, Debra Magpie Earling and Keir Graff round out the writers group and pack in plenty of Montana history and bona fides.
Stories like Kirn’s “Oasis” are core to the sensibility of "Montana Noir." It is the kind of greasy, nasty story that makes the reader want to shiver away from the characters in disgust while challenging the reader to never order take-out pizza again. Heidle’s “Ace in the Hole” is a modern Western with six-shooters and the feds that ends in a spectacular shoot-out. The stories all have a distinctly Montana appeal and flavor, which makes the noir aspects of their pieces feel refreshing and new.
“Montana Noir” is an impressive set of works from a variety of writers that deserves to be read by many, especially those who want to lose themselves in the darkness of a Montana winter night.