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by Joyce Carol Oates, editor
Akashic Books, September 2014
250 pages
ISBN: 1617752398

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

At first blush, PRISON NOIR might seem a one-note topic or a collection that might turn off some readers, since the stories were all written by inmates or former inmates. But, surprisingly perhaps, these fifteen short stories make for a strong compilation of prison literature, varied, well-written and not always what might be expected.

As the editor and well-renowned author Joyce Carol Oates writes in the introduction, these stories are not exactly a "pleasure" to read, but they do pull you in. The book begins with the compelling "Shuffle" by Christopher M. Stephen about an elderly inmate who is stuck with a cellmate he can't stand - but not everything is as it seems. There's also "A Message in the Breath of Allah" by Ali F. Sareini, about a prisoner at the Coldwater Correctional Facility in Michigan (from where the author wrote the story) about an inmate who helps dying patients, hoping that his fellow prisoner will travel with a message to Allah, with another nice twist at the end.

The stories often engender sympathy, such as "Immigrant Song" by Marco Verdoni. An uneducated Mexican immigrant is caught up in circumstances that land him in jail. The young man believes he only has to serve until he is twenty-two years old, only to find out later on he has a twenty-two-year sentence. Linda Michelle Marquardt, one of two women whose stories are featured, writes in "Milk and Tea" about a battered woman who kills her sadistic husband.

But then a story will bring into focus some of the heinous crimes committed by inmates - both inside and outside prison. As Oates said, it's not always an easy read. "3 Block From Hell," by Bryan K. Palmer is one of those. The protagonist writes about pedophiles, men who fleece the elderly and the corrupt prison guards who turn the other way (or worse). This, he writes, is why he's become a serial killer, murdering 198 men inside prison in his own brand of justice. The end brings us a stunner.

Not every story is bleak, and there's one that's actually humorous - "How eBay Nearly Killed Gary Bridgway," by Timothy Pauley. It features Washington State's real-life Green River Killer (named Gary Ridgway)and a scheme by another inmate to make money off Bridgway.

This book is part of Akashic Books' noir series, and it's a fine addition. If you're a noir lover, this may be one to add to your collection.

Lourdes Venard is a newspaper editor in Long Island, N.Y.

Reviewed by Lourdes Venard, July 2014

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