Crimes and misdemeanours

By Andre Bagoo

Trinidad Noir, ed. Lisa Allen-Agostini and Jeanne Mason
Akashic Books, ISBN 978-1-933354-55-2, 340 pp

Trinidad has been dying for a book like this. A work of fiction that explicitly attempts — however successfully or not — to tackle the seemingly intractable problem of crime which has seen the island’s murder rate shatter records. Trinidad Noir is a contemporary book in the best sense: a collection of short stories that present snapshots of various aspects of everyday Trinidad and Tobago under one powerful, multi-faceted, and urgent theme.

The book forms part of New York publisher Akashic Books’ award-winning series of original noir anthologies, which include Havana Noir and Brooklyn Noir. The Akashic series may be aimed at a larger metropolitan audience outside the Caribbean region, an audience more accustomed to the distinctive noir genre. But one cannot deny the pregnant brilliance of taking noir and applying it to the problem of crime in Trinidad and Tobago.

This, then, is the heart of Trinidad Noir’s strengths and its complications. For while the stories here set about to tackle one thing, the collection as a whole raises implicit questions about cultural assumptions not easily dealt with or dispelled in a short review. What is noir? What are the limits of noir when applied to the problems that face Caribbean nations today? How far can noir be revised and updated before the genre is obliterated altogether? And do these stories work as noir stories? Or even as short stories, pure and simple? The reader, after 340 pages, may not have the answers to all of these questions. But she will certainly contemplate them and be tempted to conclude that the stories here are often more “Trinidad” than “noir,” more stylised and muted accounts of a harsh reality than entertaining crime stories.

The noir, in both its literary and film forms, developed mainly in the late 1930s. It involved narratives with strong plot drives (derived from hard-boiled crime fictions by the likes of American novelist Raymond Chandler), and emphasised moral ambiguity and powerful sexual motivations. The protagonist was often — or at all times — in the grip of physical danger. Chandler’s private eye Phillip Marlowe of The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940) tells us: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun.”

The key component, though, was that sense of moral uncertainty. “Noir” was as much the blackness of evil as it was a dark nothingness; the negation of the moral compass altogether, as occurs in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man (1949), or Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). Characters and their environment are often not what they appear to be or represent. Protagonists are often flawed yet oddly charismatic anti-heroes. There is often a femme fatale, a sexually attractive woman who may or may not be literally sleeping with the enemy. The settings are often cities populated by corrupt characters. For example, Chandler’s Los Angeles becomes, in the view of critic Robert F. Moss, “a city in which pornographers and gamblers operate under the protection of crooked policemen . . . a fallen world where glamorous appearances mask sordid deeds and everyone is a grifter.”

This sense of a fallen world is what the editors of Trinidad Noir appear to be aiming for: a paradise lost, a nightmare within what should be — at least in the view of foreigners — an idyll. “People think they know the Caribbean, the white-sandy-beaches-rum-and-Coca-Cola-smiling-natives-waving-palms Caribbean . . . But this . . . archipelago is filled with paradoxes,” co-editor Lisa Allen-Agostini explains in an introduction to these eighteen stories. “She isn’t always the idyllic tropical dream. Far from it. Sometimes she’s a nightmare.”

The stories that follow are divided into two sections: “Country” and “Town”. One by one they pick up and continue the threads of the noir genre. For instance, the use of landscape in the stories effectively transmits a sense of moral ambiguity; the island of Trinidad is physically dangerous even as it is attractive, just like its people. In several stories, including Oonya Kempadoo’s “Standing on Thin Skin”, the Northern Range is predominantly featured, but it is part of a possessive, dangerous landscape: “Now the hills, the hills. Beach. North coast. The road curving, curving. They have you . . .” Later, the protagonist of this story, which deals effectively with the dread of crime and the lure of the island, fears the ocean: “Currents kept nipping, tugging at my feet, digging ambush holes in the sand, pulling, ‘Come deeper. Bring your child out here.’”

Miss Ramsol in Robert Antoni’s playful “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad and Tobago National Archives” alludes to the moral ambiguity of her ancestors, noting in highly symbolic terms that they were leather workers who would “mutilate de hide of de sacred ox, but dat was bad & good.” Andre in Darby Maloney’s story “The Best Laid Plans” manages to rationalise committing a crime: “This is breaking and entering, he thought. No! Taking back my own money ent no crime.” Willi Chen’s “Betrayal” features a protagonist named Sabagal who has a “lust for power,” whose “greed thickened his blood to craftier ventures which became devilishly uncontrollable.” Yet the men who enact a form of vengeance on Sabagal are, a few lines later, described by Chen as “having eyes clouded by the dark undertones of evil.” The apparent victim of a crime in Kevin Baldeosingh’s story “The Rape” turns out to be a possibly willing participant — and the villain, we suspect, could easily become the victim. Who is good and who is bad is aptly lost in these narratives.

But the stories also attempt radical revisions to the noir genre, to mixed degrees of success. We have some potentially entertaining variations on the femme fatale, such as an homme fatale in Reena Andrea Manickchand’s “Dougla”, in which the male protagonist’s boyfriend betrays him in a climatic courtroom scene. The concept of the femme fatale as the tangential woman character on the fringes of the narrative, serving as a sex object and plot device, is turned on its head in Elisha Efua Bartels’s “Woman Is Boss”, a tale of ratiocination featuring a female journalist who juggles lovers as effectively as the archetypal male private eye. Ramabai Espinet also reaches for an intriguing bi-sexual homme fatale twist in her “Nowarian Blues”.

This survey already hints at one of the key problems the stories encounter en masse in their attempts to revise the noir. Because several of the writers appear to be presenting what are in fact neo-noirs or updates to the genre, the impact of their individual efforts is diminished. In some cases, like Elizabeth Nunez’s “Lucille”, the author goes so far that the story fails to remain noir, strictly speaking. In “Lucille” Nunez presents what is in fact a competently written, deeply felt coming-of-age story. But it really has no place in a noir book. Thus, at the story’s conclusion, Nunez — as though sensing the need to justify attempting to formulate a non-noir story as noir — didactically notes of Lucille: “hers is too much a Caribbean story, a story noir, not of guns and daggers, not of high crimes and misdemeanours that cause havoc on the corporeal frame, but a story noir nonetheless.”

The strongest stories here focus more on the mechanics of the short story form than on attempting to play with the genre. They include Allen-Agostini’s effective “Pot Luck”, Jaime Lee Loy’s “Bury Your Mother”, Kempadoo’s, Antoni’s, and Baldeosingh’s pieces, and Vahni Capildeo’s “Peacock Blue”, which starts off with a playful, personal, and sardonic noir tone and then resolves into an almost breathtakingly detached narrative, with a startling and gruesome climax.

Otherwise, too often the stories appear to display a misunderstanding of the short story form, a difficult form which demands economic expression, a tight control of the reader’s response, an elegant plot, and a strong ending. Too many of these stories, like Espinet’s, Manickchand’s, and Lawrence Scott’s “Prophet”, begin strongly, carry the reader through, and then falter in their endings. The short story can have a shocking ending, but when that happens it should still, paradoxically, be foreseen on some level by the reader. Even a story which sets out to defy the expectations of the reader at its conclusion must paradoxically fulfill that expectation, such as in the case of Kempadoo’s and Baldeosingh’s pieces.

The cumulative effect of all this is the sense of an ambitious collection which sometimes, but not always, fulfills its aims. The resultant fallout is that despite the earnest intentions of most of the authors to tackle crime head first, “crime” remains elusive, almost turned into a fetish, and lost beneath the attempts to emulate the noir as a genre. But, that said, when the stories in Trinidad Noir do work, they get Trinidad — if not noir — dead right.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2009

Andre Bagoo is a journalist working in Trinidad. In 2005 he was shortlisted for the Derek Walcott Writing Prize. He currently writes for Newsday.