Mississippi Noir is the latest collection of dark crime stories in the long running series of similar titles from Akashic Books, and it’s another good one. The first hint of what to expect from the book’s sixteen stories comes in the blunt opening paragraph of Tom Franklin’s two-page introduction:
“Welcome to Mississippi, where a recent poll shows we have the most corrupt government in the United States. Where we are first in infant mortality, childhood obesity, childhood diabetes, teenage pregnancy, adult obesity, adult diabetes. We also have the highest poverty rate in the country.
And, curiously, the highest concentration of kick-ass writers in the country, too,”
And judging strictly from the number of writers who make their homes in Oxford, the claim about “kick-ass writers” might very well be true. (But sadly, so are the other ones.) This Mississippi-based story collection features the work of a few familiar names, such as Ace Atkins, writers newly-come to the genre, and even a couple of writers being published for the first time. As is always the case with the Akashic books in the series, the sixteen stories are divided into four thematic sections with tiles that give a clue to the type of story housed there: “Conquest & Revenge,” “Wayward Youth,” Bloodlines,” and “Skipping Town.”
As it turns out, my three favorite stories come from three different sections of the book: “Lord of Madison County,” by the first-time-published Jimmy Cajoleas, “Oxford Girl” by the already well-known Megan Abbott, and “Pit Stop”, by veteran writer John M. Floyd.
“Lord of Madison County” tells of a seasoned teenaged drug dealer who has stumbled upon the best way imaginable to hide the truth about himself – he pretends to be a Jesus freak interested only in spreading the word of God among his peers. When, predictably, the young man learns that, not only is he nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but that bigger, badder criminals are all around him, things do not go particularly well for him and his preacher’s-daughter girlfriend.
“Oxford Girl” takes the rather unusual approach of adopting its plot from an English ballad dating back to the 1820s. The old ballad tells the story of a young woman who is brutally murdered by the man she believes she is going to marry. The short story cleverly cites verses from one version of the old song as the story about two University of Mississippi students unfolds along eerily similar lines. There is one key difference, however, that makes the story especially effective – unlike the song, which is narrated by the killer, the story’s narrator is the murdered girl.
And then there’s “Pit Stop,” a story that likely would have warmed the heart of Alfred Hitchcock. In this one, a young woman is telling her little girl a story from her past, the one in which she encountered the infamous “Night Stalker” who killed several women along Mississippi’s Highway 25. An abundance of false leads and misdirection – along with plenty of clues that point to the Stalker’s true identity – make this one a fun and satisfying read.
Bottom Line: Mississippi Noir meets the high standard set by it predecessors in this Akashic Books series.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)