By June 2013, Laureen Cantwell had lived in Memphis for a year — long enough to have fallen in love with Elvis ("I went to Graceland twice with the VIP pass, and I cried both times"), long enough to recognize the city's selfdom, and long enough to notice a glaring omission on the part of Akashic Books Noir series.
"[They had] a Detroit Noir, Chicago, New Orleans. There was a Tel Aviv Noir. But no Memphis Noir. It was sort of surprising," Cantwell says.
She found it no coincidence that she ran into the publishing company's booth at an annual library conference that summer, so she emboldened herself to ask about the oversight.
The answer was simple enough.
"They told me they had not had the right proposal," Cantwell says.
A business card exchange and a Labor Day later, the idea of producing an anthology recounting the Memphis experience through the noir lens was in the hands of team Akashic, and so began Cantwell's journey of overseeing her first anthology.
Brooklyn-based Akashic Books was launched in 1997 by three musicians as an independent publishing company to "reverse the gentrification of the literary world."
In 2004 the company released its first Noir book, Brooklyn Noir, 19 stories using death, revolvers, stalkers, and squatters to showcase the diversity and personality of the New York borough.
"In a sense they're like a travel guide, perhaps in a creepy kind of way, and perhaps that will compel people to go and visit that place," Cantwell says. "Akashic is very selective in their projects, and they really believe in the author or story or product they're putting out."
There are 72 Noir books, with 18 forthcoming, ranging from Tehran to Trinidad, and as of November 3rd, a Memphis edition will be added to the roster.
Cantwell started her process with a 2001 Flyer article that described the somewhat disjunctive writers' scene in Memphis.
She contacted some of the writers, who put her in touch with other writers, and eventually she had 30 submissions on her hands.
Through her newfound connection with the River City writers' sphere, she also came upon a coeditor — Leonard Gill.
"She called me out of the blue. When she proposed it to me, I thought, 'Why not Memphis, indeed,'" Gill, longtime book columnist for the Flyer and Memphis magazine, says.
"He and I gelled very quickly. We seemed to have the same ideals and perspective on the project and what we wanted to produce," Cantwell says.
After many dinners and coffees and discussions and possibly a little gnashing of teeth, the two settled on 15 stories. The Brooklyn offices had requested 14.
"We were hoping that they would agree that No. 15 was so good, they couldn't produce the anthology without it," Cantwell says.
Not only did Akashic include the 15th entry, they chose the publisher's birthday to release it.
"That's a high compliment," Cantwell says.
Memphis Noir covers train cars and Beale Street, hoodoo and segregation, Nathan Bedford Forrest and, of course, Graceland, and even includes a graphic novella, the only one in the series.
"I didn't know much about noir except for the movies I'd seen. I knew there had to be a dead body and a dame and a lot of drinking," Richard Alley, who contributed "The Panama Limited," says.
Veteran Noir contributor and writer Cary Holladay says she was delighted to participate in the project.
"Memphis literally has stories growing on trees. Every day, I hear about or read about or find myself involved in ... stories that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are not too strange to happen but are much too strange to believe," Holladay says. "Memphis is quirky and feral. It should have its own entire series."
Gill says readers will be as impressed as he was with the outcome.
"Memphis should be proud. The collection was beyond my expectations, and I couldn't be happier with it," Gill says.
A launch party will take place at Crosstown Art's story booth, 438 N. Cleveland, on Tuesday, Nov. 3rd. Sponsored by the Booksellers at Laurelwood, it starts at
6 p.m. and includes a Q-and-A and signings with several of the writers.
For more information, visit akashicbooks.com.