The Urban Underbelly

Cynical cops hunting hard-luck losers—and, always, bloody crimes: It’s a collection of noir.

Richmond Noir

A sick, disoriented, homeless woman is kicked out of a hospital and dumped on the side of the road. A stripper considers prostituting herself so her friend can film it and blackmail the john. A battered body washes up on the shores of the James River, and indifferent police go through their investigative motions. This is how three of the 15 stories in Richmond Noir begin—like a hard blow to the reader’s solar plexus.

Violence and injustice reverberate through this collection of stories set in the state capital—after all, it’s noir. But the disenfranchised main characters, from drug addicts and prostitutes to lonely retirees and unemployed bankers, somehow maintain an air of dignity. It’s all they have left.

In the introduction, the three co-editors of this hard-boiled book, Andrew Blossom, Brian Castleberry and Tom DeHaven, tug on the Southern stereotype, writing, “Richmond is a city of winter balls and garden parties on soft summer evenings …. It’s also a city of brutal crime scenes and drug corners and okay-everybody-go-on-home-there’s-nothing-more-to-see …. When you accept a city not only for its strengths but also for its weaknesses, when you realize that the combination of the two is what gives the place true beauty … well, that is love.”

“Love,” in this case, is of the bittersweet variety. Tender moments, when they appear, are fleeting and not always genuine. When a man wanders back to the dusty baseball diamond where he used to play Little League games, you can’t help but wonder how long it will take for his wistful reminiscence to turn tragic. The answer is, not long at all. The man is now a drug addict, and after everyone else leaves the baseball field he crosses the street to his former third-grade teacher’s house with the intention of robbing it. He discovers the teacher has had her share of hard knocks—she’s blind and poor—but that doesn’t stop him from blaming her for his troubles and slapping her around.

Each story follows the general parameters of the genre (crime stories that typically feature tough, cynical characters in seedy settings). From the opening line in Tom Robbins’ foreword—“When I think of Richmond, Virginia, … my thoughts turn frequently to alleys”—the city acts as a menacing guard standing watch on the periphery, as distinct as any of the main characters.

The 15 individual authors were encouraged to experiment. While many of the stories are set in typical noir settings (project apartments, trailer parks and run-down houses with sagging porches), others are staged in such places as marble-floored museums and hydroelectric plants. “It’s not a book where you have 15 versions of The Long Goodbye or Kiss Me Deadly or anything,” says co-editor Andrew Blossom, who lives in Richmond’s Carytown district. “People sort of took the idea of noir and applied it to all sorts of different situations in the city of Richmond, which I think is really neat. One of the great pleasures of this process has been what we got back from all these wonderful authors. When we started receiving the stories, we realized that [the book] was going to have wonderful diversity in its storytelling.”

Each story is set in a different Richmond neighborhood. On the table of contents page, there is map of Richmond with an outline of a dead body superimposed over each neighborhood featured in the book. The editors allowed the authors to choose the neighborhoods they would write about, and somehow the charming Fan District was ignored. “We were surprised by that,” says Blossom. “We thought, ‘Oh, well, that’s what the authors chose.’ The process has been very author-driven in that sense. Then we got the foreword from Tom Robbins, and his piece was actually set in the Fan. It just felt perfect, like a little something that had been missing was solved.”

Richmond Noir is part of a series of noir collections that began in 2004 with the publication of Brooklyn Noir. Since then, the list has grown to 47 books set in such prominent cities as Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. Three years ago, when the Richmond book was just an idea, Blossom and his fellow editors weren’t sure how difficult it would be to convince local authors to contribute. Turns out it was pretty easy. After author David Robbins signed on, he turned around and helped to recruit other writers. “We ended up getting more stories back than we could actually use,” says Blossom. “The hard part was … later figuring out which ones were actually going into the book.”

The result is a book that is taut and tense and peppered with details of the city’s architecture and appearance. All but one story takes place in present-day Richmond, but predictably most weave historical tidbits into their plots. In “The Battle of Belle Isle,” by Clay McLeod Chapman, two homeless people seek shelter near a mass grave site of Civil War POWs, foreshadowing their own bleak futures.

As the editors assert in the introduction, Richmond “is a hell of a place to live.” And in these gritty tales, it’s also a hell of a place to die. It has to be—this is noir.

More picks for your summer reading list: 

Factory Man, by Beth Macy
Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly
Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning
A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger
The Mathews Men, by William Geroux
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