In a genre known for exploiting moral ambiguity, Denver’s installment in Akashic Books’ prolific Noir series is at no loss for raw material. Noir, simply French for black, inches the crime genre closer to the edge, peering deep into complex undercurrents revealed by a wider-eyed look at the human condition. Put another way: the dividing line between right and wrong can appear remarkably blurry, when looked at from a certain angle.
The Brooklyn-based independent press launched its Noir series in 2004 with a volume of short stories taking place in 20 Brooklyn neighborhoods. The collection has since expanded to over a hundred volumes, tapping local authors across the U.S. in cities like Boston and Chicago to San Francisco, Santa Fe, and St. Louis. And it now takes readers well beyond the confines of the U.S. to over 40 cities around the world, from Accra (Ghana) to Zagreb (Croatia).
The production of each city volume kicks off with the selection of a local writer as editor. Then comes a wish list of local authors. In the end, each volume features all new stories by 14 local authors, drawn from a range of literary genres and taking place in neighborhoods across the city. North Denver writers Mario Acevedo, Peter Heller, and Manuel Ramos landed three of the volume’s 14 spots.
Akashic turned to literary suspense writer Cynthia Swanson to edit “Denver Noir,” and she began work in October 2020. For Swanson, the project hit its stride “reading those first drafts of everyone’s work and being blown away. Editing this volume was a lot of fun.”
Fun as the process was, Swanson credits the contours of noir for the book’s vantage point on the Mile High City. “It’s not exactly the cheeriest volume about Denver. But what’s great about a volume like this is that the stories are not—most of them—gumshoe detective stories,” Swanson says. “The 14 stories in Denver Noir show the broader reach of noir. For me, fiction that I can really sink my teeth into has that moral ambiguity. That’s what’s interesting to me about being human. We’re complicated.”
Some of the volume’s contributors rely on Denver’s shadowy dramas of today, others reach back to particularly juicy ones from history. And in the first of three stories taking place in North Denver, drama emerges from the depths of “The Lake.” A popular North Denver lake that takes on mysterious, perhaps even diabolical, powers.
Peter Heller knows Sloan’s Lake so well in real life, he had no trouble taking readers through its stunningly beautiful landscape and wildlife. And he found noir well-suited to giving his beloved paddleboarding destination a life of its own. “There’s something really fun about going dark,” Heller confesses. “You push off from the bank, and laws of physics no longer apply.” And then, with a chuckle, this warning to neighbors: “Be careful when you walk the lake.”
For Manuel Ramos, his contribution to “Denver Noir” “really just came to me in a flash. It seemed to flow.” His “Northside Nocturne” revolves around cousins Eddie and Petey, who have deep roots in the neighborhood, yet distinct experiences and perspectives. When a series of shootings hits the area, and blaming eyes look to “the Mexicans,” Eddie’s mom feels added pressure to sell her house and move on. Ramos takes readers just below the surface, exploring both the psychology, and the psychoses, of the range of people who make up the modern-day Northside.
Ramos encourages people to check out the volume’s stories with an open mind. “Each of us has a relationship with the city. It’s a place that’s changing and growing and made up of important histories. It’s a dynamic and complicated place—that’s fuel for good stories.”
Denver Noir wraps up in Globeville with Mario Acevedo’s “El Armero.” Set just a few years in the future, Acevedo’s tale puts familiar local readers back on their heels a bit, wondering about the line between fact and fiction. His characters Rafael and Toro pull us into a complex milieu of hidden agendas playing out beneath an ironic city-funded peace memorial, an electronic billboard imploring “Stop the shooting! Love one another!”
Acevedo drew on his knowledge of Globeville history and landmarks, combined with his comfort with the genre and the born-loser anti-hero archetype, to create a tale with elements connected to much larger themes. “I came across a news story about ‘smart guns,’” he says, “You know they’re starting to call them ‘personalized’ guns. It seemed so absurd. Rafael’s character started with the idea that, no surprise, someone is going to learn how to outsmart that smart gun.”
Neighborhoods across the metro area generate equally interesting tales of blurred lines and unhappy endings. Readers will see Glendale in an entirely new light, learn new things about the destruction of Denver’s first and oldest neighborhood, and drink and dance along with “mourning revelers” in 2011, when long-time South Broadway gay bar BJ’s Carousel closes forever.
You’ll traverse “the longest, wickedest street,” beginning in Aurora with David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s “Colfax and Havana” and ending in Lakewood with Erika T. Wurth’s “Tough Girls.” R. Alan Brook’s graphic short story will take you into Baker, into an unfolding pair of official and unofficial investigations that could inspire you to set out eavesdropping for yourself at Mutiny Information Café.
“Denver Noir” presents an impressive range of perspectives and observations. Between the writers and their characters, you’ll encounter dozens of distinct and compelling relationships with this place. Maybe you’ll start to see our city—and even yourself—in new ways.
“Denver Noir” comes out May 3 and can be preordered at your favorite local independent bookstore. Readings are scheduled for May and June, including one in North Denver at BookBar on May 25.
May 25, 7 p.m.
BookBar on Tennyson Street
Meet editor Cynthia Swanson and contributors Francelia Belton (Five Points), D.L. Cordero (Auraria), Manuel Ramos (Northside), Twanna LaTrice Hill (Capitol Hill)
Full calendar of “Denver Noir” readings and events: akashicbooks.com/events/locations/united-states/colorado/