It felt like a well-heeled dame with a sob story six-feet deep was going to stroll into the joint at any minute. Kevin Sampsell and I were sitting at the lunch counter at Fuller's on NW 9th over greasy plates of gravy and bacon, discussing the finer points of The Maltese Falcon and Sampsell's turn as the editor of Portland Noir.
Sampsell, occasional Mercury contributor and publisher of Future Tense, curated Portland's entry into Akashic Books' noir series, which began in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir and now boasts over 40 titles. The premise is simple: Sixteen local authors write an original story about a different neighborhood in their burg. What makes Portland's stand out is the reoccurring sense of dread and familiarity that pervades the stories—as the writers subtly reference events and places that occur in other stories in the collection.
"It turned out super good. I'm quite happy with it," says Sampsell, who sent out a call for submissions to about 40 writers that he's met during his decade-plus working at Powell's Books. While some writers were dubious about writing genre fiction, not sure that they could muster a mystery, some of their stories were a pleasant surprise. "I liked Megan Kruse's ["Lila"] and Dan DeWeese's ["The Sleeper"]. They both snuck up on me," Sampsell says.
"I asked for stories with a heavy Portland feel, with some sort of dark aspect to fit the noir genre," he explains. But he didn't want to include "paint by numbers" mysteries. So Sampsell asked Bill Cameron, a local mystery writer and Noir contributor, if noir fans would be disappointed if the collection were more literary in scope. According to Cameron, noir fans tend to be more tolerant of literary experimentation than straight-up mystery fans. Famed crime writer George Pelecanos, editor of DC Noir and DC Noir 2, told Sampsell that the DC collections tended toward the literary as well.
Apparently, smart dark fiction suits Portland just fine, as Portland Noir has been topping Powell's best-selling fiction list. "The series has been very successful. [Akashic Books] say they tend to sell around 7,000 copies, which is quite good for a small press book"—a big selling point for editing the book. "Anthologies are a lot of work," he says. Not one for idle hands, at the time Sampsell was also working on his upcoming memoir, A Common Pornography, due out in January 2010.
As for the stories, Portland's noir runs the gamut from stalker tales to skateboarding brodowns to straight-up gore to comics. The comic, by Jamie S. Rich and Joëlle Jones, is only the second to appear in the series (inexplicably, the first was in the Wall Street anthology). Much like Portland, the collection is a mixed bag of fun, with individual writers choosing neighborhoods to write about—Ariel Gore opted for Clinton Street, Monica Drake picked West Burnside—and common references and allusions tying them together. "I wanted it to be a déjà vu thing, not a repetitious sort of thing," says Sampsell. "Sort of like Portland and its small town feel."
Sampsell has been busy watching film classics like Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity just in case someone lobs a weighty noir question at him during Friday's Powell's event. He promises a theatrical reading of the book's introduction, complete with mood music. Contributors Chris A. Bolton, Luciana Lopez, and Jonathan Selwood will read their stories afterward.