Over Our Dead Body Count
Parsing Through the Facts and Fictions of Baltimore’s Crime Reality
The cover photo of Baltimore Noir, a new crime-fiction collection of Baltimore stories written by local writers, is of boarded-up rowhouses. “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world” is the motto of its publisher, New York’s Akashic Books. Editor Laura Lippman, the successful mystery writer, showcases bulletmore, murderland graffiti in the introduction, where she estimates that “statistically, two people died” in Baltimore homicides while she wrote it. David Simon, the crime reporter-turned-creator of all-too-real television dramas about Baltimore’s problems, penned one of Noir’s stories. Another uses Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Street TV show as a plot device. The book-release publicity boasts that its authors “dissect their city with a vengeance.”
Such morbid approaches to telling Baltimore stories stirred overearnest members of the City Council in 2002 to propose a bill to counteract “the negative images of Baltimore as portrayed in ‘real-crime’ fiction, TV dramas, and movies.” It failed, thanks in part to Simon’s lobbying, but the bill’s chief sponsor promised to try again later. No need. Despite the rough-riding sales job, Noir doesn’t criminalize Baltimore. Just the opposite; for the most part it dresses the city up in engrossing storytelling that, in fact, draws very little from the daily crime blotter.
Noir’s stories mostly play it safe, set in waterfront neighborhoods, tourist attractions, posh enclaves, and suburban hills and dales rarely visited by violent crime. The book is virtually devoid of the vérité plots that get legislators all in a bunch, the all-too-predictable thug life that dominates Baltimore’s real violence. Even Noir’s one fictional slaughter that seems too authentic to be made up, Simon’s “Stainless Steel,” barely crosses paths with the corner boys, much less their bosses. It tells when a homicide isn’t a homicide: when the police decline to take a confession in a death that otherwise looks entirely accidental. But its characters are the plankton of the corner’s food chain—friendless junkies who scrounge for scrap metal to feed their habits. They don’t even rank as pawns in “the game.” The rest of Noir is middle- to upper-class.
Still, if Baltimore is perpetually one of America’s most violent cities, creative types may as well make crime fiction that leverages the idea, if not the actuality, of its criminality. Akashic now puts Baltimore in league with the rest of its Noir cities: Brooklyn, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Dublin, the Twin Cities, and Manhattan, all of them with their own crime-fiction titles. Not one of them can shake a stick at the blood on Baltimore’s hands. Brooklyn has earned two Noir volumes, so Mobtown must be good for at least two or three more than that. Future volumes could more broadly plumb the mean streets of the city’s vast wings of misery, but this is a good start.
In 2000, John Waters famously urged the local chamber of commerce to endorse his bumper-sticker idea: come to baltimore and be shocked. Waters has said he’s been pushing this slogan for about three decades. And Baltimore’s violence has matched his persistence over those years with, oh, maybe 7,500 murders. In the face of so many actual horrors to contemplate, the prospect of death-numbed Baltimoreans reading about a few imaginary ones is not only palliative, but a form of economic development. Making lemonade out of the sour pulp of Baltimore’s hard life is already an entertainment staple. Homicide, The Corner, and The Wire have brought jobs and taxes. Noir may be a New York production, and many of its writers aren’t entirely settled in Baltimore, but it’s worth a least a little chump change for a few Baltimore scribes. And in comparison with the real thing, much of this Noir is downright warm and cuddly.
Take, for instance, Tim Cockey’s “The Haunting of Slink Ridgley,” about the friendly ghost of a milkman, who observes the tortured life of the little girl who feels responsible for his accidental death; she grows up to kill her killer husband before drowning herself in Lake Roland. As “Slink,” the ghost wisps around the time-space continuum of Annie Brewster’s tragic days, he also makes trips to Pimlico, the old Fish Market, the Block, and the Hunt Cup. Like so much of Baltimore writing, it’s nostalgic, and travels in safe neighborhoods. In the end, lethargic Annie comes to life by using her foot to jam the knife deeper into the back of her evil wretch of a spouse, whose head she’s just bashed with a bottle. After that, a peaceful suicide by drowning in a familiar lake seems a sane and sensible solution to her problems.
Many of Noir’s stories paint pretty pictures, with splotches of blood to justify the genre. Perversely horrific twists, hard-bitten clichés, and portraits of the truly deranged are sprinkled over servings of civility. Popular themes include real estate—the outrageous price of the old family rowhouse in Locust Point in Lippman’s story, or the terrorizing real-estate agent in Sujata Massey’s “Goodwood Gardens”—and tourist attractions—the National Aquarium in Marcia Talley’s “Home Movies” and Camden Yards in Jim Fusilli’s “The Homecoming,” both of which also feature Little Italy. Showcasing these respectable slivers of Baltimore may be a bait-and-switch, given Noir’s marketing job, but entertainment is often better served as a diversion from the familiar truth. If that’s what Noir was going for, it has succeeded. A more honest cover photo, though, would have been the Inner Harbor skyline.