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'Amsterdam Noir' finds its darkness inside us

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When I heard that Akashic's Noir series was tackling Amsterdam, I was immediately curious. The series is known for giving crime fiction fans glimpses into the darkest corners of cities and countries all over the world. Some entries are unsurprising because the places are known hotspots for illegal activities, gangs, and violence (i.e. Haiti, Chicago, Lagos, Mexico City, Detroit), but others are unexpected — like Amsterdam. According to a United Nations study, the Netherlands is near the bottom of the list in murders on a global scale, and only 15% of its murders are related to gangs and organized crime. So where does noir go when crime is rare? Editors René Appel and Josh Pachter had their work cut out for them, and they delivered. Well, sort of. Most books in the series are arranged geographically; Amsterdam Noir breaks away from that. In this anthology, the 15 stories are grouped thematically, based on four classic noir films: Out of the PastKiss Me DeadlyTouch of Evil, and They Live by Night. This approach helps readers identify the cohesive elements in each section and presents the city as a whole, instead of as separate neighborhoods. Spotlighting a city known worldwide for licit drug use and sex workers while steering clear of clichés was probably the hardest test for Amsterdam Noir, and it passes. Only a few stories mention sex workers or drug use. In fact, there is only one tale dealing directly with the city's famed red light district: Simon de Waal's "Salvation," a surreal story about a man struggling to cope with the loss of his daughter which includes this superb description of Amsterdam's diversity:

The dark-skinned prostitutes preside over their domain in the small alleys surrounding the stately building, just like every other group that has its own space in the district: the S&M ladies, the Thai and Filipino transsexuals, the Chinese, the Eastern Europeans. And all of that spiced up by dozens of busy coffee shops, by a café where the Hells Angels meet, by the headquarters of the Salvation Army. Belief and sin go hand in hand here.

The problem with steering clear of clichés is that it shows Amsterdam as a clean city, making Amsterdam Noir a collection packed with stories tangentially about crime, not a noir anthology. In fact, it reminded me of the problems I had with a previous installment, San Juan Noir, which missed the mark by including stories from a few crime and mystery masters — but mostly from authors, academics, and translators who had rarely published crime narratives and failed to present troubled places like La Perla, a famous slum that's home to some of the island's biggest heroin rings, and Luis Lloréns Torres, an enormous public housing project. San Juan Noir was a good introduction to the diversity of the island, but a mediocre collection of crime narratives. Amsterdam Noir is only saved from averageness by a handful of stories that, besides being the best in the collection, also adhere to the standards of the genre. Highlights include Michael Berg's "Welcome to Amsterdam," a revenge narrative that is the most violent and perhaps the most satisfying read in the book; Karin Amatmoekrim's "Silent Days," a story about an old man who rescues an abused woman that has some of the best writing in Amsterdam Noir ("Some things are better without sound. Even violence seems peaceful when wreathed in silence."); Murat Isik's "The Man on the Jetty," a tale about a pervert molesting two boys on the street that explores the concept of otherness in an international metropolis; Loes Den Hollander's "The Stranger Inside Me," which is the weirdest story here and deals with a young man who commits a murder guided by the ghost of Ted Bundy; and "Starry, Starry Night," a straightforward account about a bit of harassment gone horribly wrong, written by editors Appel and Pachter. Every book in the Noir series serves as an introduction to a place. Besides the crime, the series and its editors have made it a point to address things like economic infrastructure, gentrification, and racial politics. This aligns with Akashic's motto: "reverse-gentrification of the literary world." Amsterdam Noir toes that line beautifully, touching on subjects like the impact of tourism, migration, and discrimination of Moroccans. For example, Walter Van Den Berg's "Get Rich Quick" shows the relationship between socioeconomic status and skin color:

When we were kids, we used to swim there, because our parents wouldn't give us money for the public pool where the white kids went, so us brown kids were the poor schmucks who had to settle for the green water of the lake.

In their introduction, editors Appel and Pachter say they want readers to know that bad things happen in Amsterdam, that the city "also has its dark side, its shadowy corners." However, what they ended up with is an anthology about a place where bad things happen not because of the psychogeography of the population, not because of corruption, gang violence, drug problems, or poverty, but because of human emotions — lunacy and jealousy. You could see that as a failure, but maybe it's not. Maybe the crime-free streets of Amsterdam are precisely what they wanted to show. Or maybe, like with most arthouse horror films, the point is that the monsters are not tied to the streets; they are always inside us.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.  Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.