A group of teens make a grisly discovery while burglarizing a wealthy home in Downer Woods. A dispute over lawn care escalates between two neighbors in West Allis. Two transit cops have a fatal confrontation on a Midtown bus.
They’re not the sort of stories that would appear in a tourism brochure from VISIT Milwaukee. But the short stories in “Milwaukee Noir,” a new collection being published on May 7 by Akashic Books, showcase a different, grittier, and more complicated side of Cream City than many might see.
“What I wanted to try to do with the people involved in this was to get people who had different points of view on the city,” said editor Tim Hennessy. “Getting them to look at the city through the lens of a crime story was a fun challenge for all of us.”
Hennessy will be in Madison at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 8, at Mystery To Me, 1863 Monroe St. He will talk about the book with several of the writers who contributed to the anthology, including Madison author Christi Clancy; Jennifer Morales, a poet and former member of the Milwaukee School Board and Vida Cross, a poet who has written about growing up in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood.
Akashic Books began its long-running noir anthology series in 2004 with “Brooklyn Noir,” and has since expanded to include short story collections set in cities all over the world. There’s “Berlin Noir,” “Twin Cities Noir,” “Mumbai Noir,” and a host of others, although not a “Madison Noir.” Yet.
Hennessy approached the series as a fan, enjoying how short crime fiction offered insights into other cities and the people who live there. When he visits another place, he often brings with him a book of fiction set in that location, even if it’s from a different time period.
“One of the great things about crime fiction is that it really allows you to look at different social classes,” he said. “It allows you to really focus on those sources of conflict and allows commentary.”
Because of that, Hennessy thought Milwaukee was particularly ripe for authors to tackle these kinds of issues, and pitched Akashic Books on the idea of a “Milwaukee Noir.” He said the city’s long history of social unrest and economic instability offered a lot of possibilities.
“Milwaukee is a city with a great history of conflict as well as opportunity,” he said. “We’ve had some downturns in the economy and we have some social issues that we’ve never been able to progress beyond.”
Hennessy began reaching out to a variety of writers, hoping to put together a mix of contributors that mirrored the diversity of the city. The resulting anthology includes established crime writers like Nick Petrie, author of “The Drifter” and three other thrillers in the Peter Ash series, as well as literary authors Larry Watson and Jane Hamilton.
“They all have different viewpoints of how the city has worked,” Hennessy said. “Getting them to look at that through the lens of a crime story was a fun challenge for all of us.”
Each story is tied to a particular neighborhood in Milwaukee. While the stories in the collection sometimes cross paths with famous city locations (one story opens with the protagonist falling in love at Summerfest), most of the others walk streets that the average tourist won’t see.
“I used to be a cable guy, and I’d travel all over the city,” Hennessy said. “I got to be in a lot of neighborhoods and a lot of different homes. You get a very different perspective when you’re in the nooks and crannies of a city that a lot of people drive by.
“I kind of let my mind wander about what areas would be really be cool to have in a Milwaukee anthology. But the contributors got to choose what areas they would like. I did want to get as much of the city covered as I possibly could, especially outside the areas that are more touristy.”
It may be hard to believe, but “Milwaukee Noir” is the first collection of short fiction in any genre about Milwaukee by local writers. Hennessy said the Akashic series is valuable for showcasing good writers in regions that may get less attention than they deserve.
“The more I read, the more I read the same things happening on the coast,” he said. “We’re a big country. There are a lot of incredibly distinct voices out there that don’t get recognized as much as they should.”