Sunday, February 28, 2010

Patrick Millikan and PHOENIX NOIR

I'm pleased to introduce guest blogger Patrick Millikan, who is the driving force behind Phoenix Noir, a compilation of short stories which Publisher's Weekly calls "A stellar volume in Akashic's noir series," Patrick solicited and edited the stories, and even contributed one of his own.  Patrick is a serious student of the noir style, as well as one of the remarkable group of people who run Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ.

-Donis, thanks for inviting me.  I’ve had a number of people express interest in the story of the PHOENIX NOIR, how the project started, how it blossomed, and why the publisher took a chance on a relatively unknown commodity like me to put it together.

The answer in a nutshell: luck and a whole lot of persistence. Like many noir nuts, I’d followed Akashic Books’ series of noir anthologies with a growingsense of amazement.  What started as  a sleeper hit with BROOKLYN NOIR some years back quickly grew into a successful series with such entries as D.C. NOIR, edited by one of my heroes, George Pelecanos, CHICAGO NOIR, LOS ANGELES NOIR, etc.  I knew that there was no stopping them and that sooner or later they’d get around to PHOENIX.  At first I had no real thought of editing such a book, but I did want to contribute a story to it if possible, so I contacted Johnny Temple with a casual inquiry.  I’d 

dealt with Akashic as a bookseller and had been hand-selling their books for a long time, so that helped.

At the time, Johnny was considering a proposal for PHOENIX NOIR from another writer, but after several months it had apparently fizzled.  I began to think more and more about trying to take it on myself, and with a good word from several well-known author friends, I put together a formal proposal.  First, of course, I had to convince them that Phoenix was indeed a suitable location for a collection of noir stories.  It surprised me that so many people I talked with about the project said “Phoenix?  Noir?”   Hell yes, I thought, this is the perfect setting.  The thought of revealing the city at street level, with all of it contradictions and its rich history of crime and corruption, began to possess me.

My ultimate concern in laying out the book and soliciting the contributors was to try to do the city justice, to create a collection that the locals would appreciate, that would reflect the diversity of Phoenix and respect its past.  This seemed to be a daunting task, and I began reading everything I could find about PHOENIX, a city that I grew up in but still only know a tiny bit about.  What I intuitively realized was that the city had a chameleon-like quality, that all one had to do was drive though town, especially in central

Phoenix, and simply turn a corner to find oneself in a completely different city.  The drive along Central Avenue, for instance, from Baseline to Glendale, or down Van Buren from the I-17 to 52nd St, or across Grand Ave from the Five Points intersection at 7th Ave all the way across the west side.

Lots of books helped to provide the historical background, but Bradford Luckingham’s PHOENIX: HISTORY OF A SOUTHWESTERN METROPOLIS and MINORITIES IN PHOENIX were Indispensable.  Mostly though I talked with a lot of long-time Phoenicians (including a lot of unsuspecting customers at the Poisoned Pen who didn’t realize they were being interrogated). I sweated over the intro to the book and spent a good bit of time driving around town and trying to get my head around this sprawling beast of a city.

  Next was mapping out the book and approaching the writers. One of the hallmarks of the Akashic Noir books is that each story must be set in a different neighborhood or landmark.  So, I tried to match writers with appropriate parts of Phoenix.  Jon Talton of course was at the top of my list.  The author of the popular Phoenix-set David Mapstone novels and a longtime valley columnist, he possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Phoenix history, and was a logical choice for a story set downtown.   His story “Bull” kicks off the book, providing readers with a revealing glimpse into the pervasively corrupt underbelly of town circa 1943.   

Diana Gabaldon was also one of my first choices.  I knew that her participation in the project would bring the book to a new readership, but I also knew that Diana, as a third-generation Arizonan and a devotee of dark crime fiction, would bring something unique to the table.  

  I’ve long admired Luis Urrea’s books and set my sights on him very early on in the process.  His work has an undeniably noir sensibility, and there are few out there who knows more about the border.  I knew that he’d produce something magical if I could just get him to agree to do it.  After much back and forth (ie a lot of nagging on my part), he came through at zero hour, just when I was starting to despair.  His contribution, “Amapola,” was just nominated for the Edgar Award.

Megan Abbott was finishing up a novel based upon our own 1931 Winnie Ruth Judd case, and was very enthusiastic about PHOENIX NOIR from the very beginning.  Her stylish take on 1970’s Scottsdale and the Bob Crane murder remains one of my favorite stories in the book.   Gary Phillips somehow managed to take elements of the early 1970’s murder of soul singer Arlester Christian of Dyke and The Blazers, the civil rights movement and the Lincoln Ragsdale family and create an unforgettable tale.

Perhaps the most exciting part of PHOENIX NOIR for me was to showcase local writers such as Robert Anglen, Kurt  Reichenbaugh, Charles Kelly and Dogo Barry Graham.  Anglen, an Investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic, created what is easiest the darkest and most depraved story in the book.  This gives me great pleasure… I feel honored to be able to showcase their  work in the book, alongside Jim Sallis, Don Winslow, Stella Pope-Duarte and other more established writers.

The biggest surprise of the book was probably Laura Tohe’s contribution, “Tom Snag.”   I wanted a Native American perspective In the book, and, though I’d never met Laura, I knew of her work and sent her a blind query asking if she might be interested in trying her hand at a noir short story.  She graciously agreed, and several months later emailed me an amazing story about a shape-shifting femme fatale who preys upon a drunken barfly.   

Sure, there were some frustrations along the way: I really wanted a story from Alfredo Vea, for instance, and I simply couldn’t track the guy down.  Vea’s novel LA MARAVILLA, set out in Buckeye with it’s odd mélange of transplanted Okies and Yaqui Indians, is one of the great neglected works of Arizona literature.  

Who knows, maybe someday there’ll be a PHOENIX NOIR II.   If so, Vea’s at the top of my list.  Along with a lot of other people.  While I’m very proud of PHOENIX NOIR and the way it turned out, it’s but a  glimpse of the city.  There are a hell of a lot more stories out there on the streets just begging to be told.


Judy Starbuck said...

Patrick, what a daunting task. I am the proud owner of the anthology and highly recommend this walk on the dark side. Since I've lived in Phoenix for decades, it was fun to read about familiar territory. The introduction is a terrific depiction of the city. Good job!

David Thompson said...

Great blog entry, Patrick!! And what a great anthology, too. Good luck at the Edgars! See you there. :-)

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