November Read of the Month: “Tampa Bay Noir,” edited by Colette Bancroft

Colette Bancroft

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Akashic Books has long made a name for itself with an impressive string of award-winning original noir anthologies; thus, it is no surprise that its latest, Tampa Bay Noir, continues in that edgy, first-rate, compellingly dark tradition. Edited by Tampa Bay Times Book Critic Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Noir contains fifteen splendid crime and mystery short stories in the noir category by such notable authors as Michael Connelly, Ace Atkins, Lisa Unger, Tim Dorsey, Lori Roy, Gale Massey and many more.

On the night of the anthology’s August 4 release, Bancroft and three of the authors gathered at Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg to discuss the collection—and to compare their notions of what exactly constitutes noir. One of the authors, Sterling Watson, applauded the “glamorous” and “seediness” of both Florida and noir fiction, while Lisa Unger noted a noir story’s ability to find the “dark side of something so beautiful.” Unger also commented on how the past and present twist and wind around each other in noir stories, while Watson observed the stories involve “fate” and “determinism.” In noir fiction, he said, somebody makes a decision and “there has to be a payback” Gale Massey spoke of the pessimistic nature of the genre, something obvious in her story, “Marked.”

The darkness at the core of a proper noir story was a continuing theme at the Tombolo gathering. Massey said noir “starts dark and gets darker.” Bancroft defined noir as a very dark mystery, “the very opposite of Agatha Christie.” Readers, she thought, enjoy classic mysteries like Christie’s because the stories “set things right,” and the characters “find justice.” But in noir fiction, justice isn’t always served, there is no happy ending, and the best conclusion one could have is “ambiguous.”

Lisa Unger and Colette Bancroft

Watson’s notions about fate, decisions and paybacks are aptly reflected in his contribution, “Extraordinary Things.” In this tale, a man who had been missing excitement in his life finds more than his share when he reconnects with a strange, but beautiful woman he once suffered a bizarre encounter with while at college. Years later, she contacts him with an invitation. He agrees to meet her at a bar in Pass-a-Grille, where the “laughter was high and giddy and desperate.” From there, the story twists and turns with excellent writing, a strong sense of place, and a slight hint of wry humor until the dark ending.

Massey, who spoke of the pessimistic side of noir, reflects that aspect in her story, “Marked,” which is set in Pinellas Park. In the story, which, as Bancroft observed, “plunges right into the darkness,” a girl named Callie stands at home plate waiting for the right pitch. She hears the nearby screech of metal against metal of a deadly crash. Later she learns both of her parents were killed in the wreck. She ends up in a foster group home and only begins to find a kind of solace when she joins the ROTC and discovers the power of a gun. That which initially comforts her will ultimately turn on her before the story ends. Massey, who writes with power and a gift for the telling details, nails Callie’s personality acutely, but with sympathy.

Bancroft, as the anthology’s editor, also contributed a short story. While speaking at the Tombolo gathering, she said she had not written fiction since college. Yet her short story, “The Bite,” is chillingly perfect. Set in a neighborhood called Rattlesnake, the story is narrated by a young girl—too young to understand pedophilia but wise enough to know to avoid the new man in the neighborhood. There is a strange, dark justice implied in its ambiguous—or perhaps ironic—ending. An excellent contribution to the anthology, “The Bite” is remarkable in its deft use of a child’s point of view to add both poignancy and suspense to the story.

Unger, who spoke of “looking for the shadow” when confronted with Florida’s beauty, finds that balance of dark and beauty in her story “Only You,” set in Clearwater Beach. There’s a hint of The Great Gatsby in this tale of the son of the bartender at the local yacht club who goes off poor and returns filthy rich. He comes back for the girl he loved but left behind. She is a rare beauty and the daughter of yacht club members, someone well above his reach in their youthful days. Conflicts naturally ensue, and Unger brings out the tensions with her skillful sense of timing and precise narration.

There is also a gentle nostalgic quality to Unger’s writing. In expressive and lyrical language, she writes of growing up at Clearwater Beach as a kind of child’s paradise: “This place is apart. A world separate from the rest of it. …Florida kids, living in bathing suits and flip-flops, always dragging a damp towel, or a fishing rod, or a bucket filled with shells.”

Unger also captures the natural splendor of the area when she writes of “The high moon colors the cumulus clouds silver, in a velvety blue-black sky. A great blue heron stands in silhouette, long and elegant on a piling … nature’s canvas, peaceful and unassuming.” But no matter how much natural loveliness Unger fills her story with, the darkness is there in true noir fashion.

Ladee Hubbar, who received the 2018 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence for her debut novel, The Talented Ribkins, finds her noir in “It’s Not Locked Because It Don’t Lock.” In that story, she reunites two once-close friends after five years when one returns to the neighborhood after his cousin dies. In a simple construction with flawlessly on-target dialogue, Hubbar explores how old grievances can lead to new revenge and friendships can’t always be trusted to be for the best.

In a similar vein, author Yuly Restrepo Garcés, an assistant professor at the University of Tampa, explores the complexities of friendships in “Pablo Escobar.” In this tale, the balance of gratitude and debt within an unusual friendship between a young Columbian immigrant and an unhappy girl plays out with an undercurrent of violence. As with most stories in the anthology, Garcés builds the suspense slowly though there is a tipoff early that all might not end well. She edges the story closer to its ultimate conclusion with clean, crisp sentences, such as “What followed was an hour-long screaming match behind the closed door of Jake’s memorabilia room, during which the sausage pizza Nicole had ordered got colder and colder.”

As with any anthology containing contributions from different authors, the stories reflect different styles and varying degrees of adherence to a true noir standard. That is, some are shockingly dark, and some are more akin to a classic mystery one might find in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Yet all carry a punch and are worth reading. The collective impact rivals any full-length novel from the best of its many excellent authors for suspense and mystery.

Naturally, too, each story has the common ingredient of Tampa and its surrounding neighborhoods as essential facets. That is, Tampa and its environs are characters in the stories, not just a mere setting.

In some ways, the book is a tribute to Tampa Bay, a kind of strange love letter to a region of the state often noted for crime, over-development, traffic snarls—and an unparalleled natural beauty. For example, best-selling author Tim Dorsey, in his typical tongue-in-cheek dry wit, describes Florida’s allure in “Triggerfish Lane”:

They keep coming to Florida. … The reasons are varied. Retirement, beaches, affordable housing, growing job base, tax relief, witness protection, fugitive warrants, forfeiture laws that shelter your house if you’re a Heisman Trophy winner who loses a civil suit in the stabbing death of your wife, and year-round golf.

Lisa Unger, in “Only You,” might well sum up this yin and yang tribute to Tampa best: “Florida is the butt of a national joke, ripped to shreds by the intellectual elite. But those of us who really know it, we keep the secret of its savage beauty.”

*Reviewer’s note: The authors included in Tampa Bay Noir include: Michael Connelly, Lori Roy, Ace Atkins, Karen Brown, Tim Dorsey, Lisa Unger, Sterling Watson, Luis Castillo, Sarah Gerard, Danny López, Ladee Hubbard, Gale Massey, Yuly Restrepo Garcés, Eliot Schrefer, and Colette Bancroft. The August 4 Tombolo Books program referenced in this review is available as of this writing at]

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