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tel aviv noir

15 june 2021

The Akashic Noir series is now 110 volumes strong, set in every conceivable noirish city and some (Columbus, Ohio?) you would barely think possible. I remember when Brooklyn Noir was new – seventeen years ago, not long after I started this website – and I thought "I ought to read that some day." I never did. I am over a hundred books behind now in catching up.

The first Akashic Noir collection that I've read is from 2014 and is set in Tel Aviv; I got to it from my interest in the sharp, funny short-story writer Etgar Keret, who edited Tel Aviv Noir along with Assaf Gavron. Almost all Noir Series stories are new for their volumes. A couple of these were originally written in English, and one in Spanish; the rest are translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan.

The editors sort the stories into "Encounters," "Estrangements," and "Corpses," but for me they lie along a continuum from the sordidly realistic to the sordidly magic-realist.

Stories of realistic sordidness: Co-editor Gavron's contribution "Center" is a promising private-eye story that wraps up in a hurried and perfunctory way; it might work better if elaborated into a novel with fully-developed characters. Gadi Taub's "Sleeping Mask" is a wish-fulfillment story (like many noirs) narrated by a sordid pimp who falls in love with his own main attraction but then loses her to a superstar gangster. It is a well-told story of grim erotic obsession. Antonio Ungar contributes a flatly detached and very "told" gangster narrative, "Saïd the Good" (translated from Spanish). Julia Fermentto, in "Who's a Good Boy!," writes about depressed, hard-drinking young women leaving a trail of destruction across both Tel Aviv and small-town nightlife. The best of this skein is Gai Ad's fine story "The Expendables," where a widow who has always lived a super-cautious existence finds herself evolving from careful to daring to brazen.

Stories with a touch of the supernatural: Matan Hermoni's "Women." There are no women in it, but there is a ghost who commiserates with the narrator after he's been dumped by his wife. In Lavie Tidhar's "Time-Slip Detective" (an English-language original), parallel universes cross and the narrator ends up in a futuristic version of Tel Aviv imagined in the distant past, a city of zeppelins, clean-cut detectives in trenchcoats, and a mysterious woman in white. Gon Ben Ari's "Clear Recent History" plays with some fantastic concepts about the Internet, authorship, and the accelerating course of history. In Silje Bekeng's "Swirl" (the other English original), an expat woman grows sure she's being watched by security police. "My Father's Kingdom" by Shimon Adaf features a researcher who becomes obsessed with vatic communications in cryptic, ever-shifting books by a prophetic poet. Alex Epstein puts "Death in Pajamas" – blue pajamas – and has him wander into a Tel Aviv coffee shop.

One blends the sordid and the fantastic. In Yoav Katz's wry "Tour Guide," the weird premise is that rival wise guys are in an escalating struggle for control of a tourism niche: bus outings that travel to the seamiest sides of Tel Aviv to hear about its criminal element from the criminals themselves.

Deakla Keydar's "Slow Cooking" doesn't fit in. It has the rhythm of a rom-com, except you are braced right from the start for the story to turn noirish. It does, eventually, but it's a story neither of crime nor of sordidness – its edge comes from playing with a reader's (and its own narrator's) assumptions about what constitues sordid.

Etgar Keret's own contribution is "Allergies," with his trademark sardonic magical-realism in evidence: no real crime or even evil, perhaps, but a story of a marriage warped by the force-field of a difficult dog.

Tel Aviv Noir is an uneven collection, which is what you'd expect from a set of 14 specially-commissioned new stories. Many of its authors still don't have much of a presence in English translation, seven years later, and they show here that they deserve it. I hope I get to read more of their work before long.

Keret, Etgar, and Assaf Gavron, eds. Tel Aviv Noir. n.p.: Akashic, 2014.