Arts & Events

BOOK REVIEW: Berkeley Noir

Steven Finacom
Saturday June 13, 2020 - 12:13:00 PM

The astonishing and ever-changing events of the first half of 2020—the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant economic collapse, the rapid resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the debate over the direction of policing and racial relations, the twists and turns of politics as we approach both a momentous and fraught national election—all of these events will ultimately produce not just history but powerful, and probably disturbing, fiction.

If you want to get a head start on dark reading about our times during “shelter in place”, there’s a new book out filled with mystery and noir fiction set in contemporary Berkeley. Berkeley Noir is an anthology edited by Jerry Thompson and Owen Hill and the latest work of fiction set in Berkeley in a long and distinguished literary history that goes back to the 19th century

Although it appears there were some advance readings in 2019 the book was published in 2020 and the introduction is dated February, 2020. I found online mention of some scheduled publicity events and readings that were cancelled after the COVID-19 crisis and “shelter in place” began.

The “Noir Anthology” series is published by Akashic Books, based in Brooklyn, and there have been dozens of books, each focused on dark doings in a specific city or region. There are already San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Cruz Noir anthologies. 

At first consideration one might wonder if Berkeley has enough of a seedy underbelly to produce credible settings and stories for such an anthology? The writing proves it does. Most of the stories are very short and a quick read. Susan Dunlap’s is the longest, but still under 30 pages despite cramming in a murder in front of Peet’s Coffee, crime scene investigation, and somewhat accidental identification of the killer. 

The protagonists and storytellers include police, career criminals, a high school student, runaways, and mostly just ordinary folks, most of them down on their luck or making the worst choice from a series of unpalatable options. Some are trying to do right but end up in serious trouble. One narrator is a rat—not a metaphorical conman, in this case, but a genuine four footed rodent with a fear of heights. 

There are lots of characters who are not as they seem or who hide dark secrets, including fictional law enforcement officials, a UC graduate student, an administrator at Berkeley High School, fisherfolk on the Berkeley Pier, and some fictionalized UC professors. A number of murders occur, or are alluded to, but a couple of the most compelling and interesting stories don’t directly involve crime. 

The settings include brown shingle houses in the hills, Telegraph Avenue (of course), Willard Park, the Berkeley Marina, Berkeley High School, the Berkeley Central Library (where you DON’T want to arrive early, if the story is any guide), Mortar Rock Park, and a gentrifying West Berkeley neighborhood where a tech tycoon is the newest resident. There is one tautly narrated account of a night time storm weather sail on San Francisco Bay. 

Noir is an appropriate title. These are not upbeat stories. There is considerable irony but little light humor. Few, if any, of the characters emerge in a good place, even if they are alive at the end. 

A couple of the stories have occult or a-cult overtones but most draw their inspiration from ordinary human behavior and misbehavior. 

I’m not conversant enough with contemporary mystery authors to recognize most of those in this anthology, but some names are familiar, including experienced writers Susan Dunlap, Barry Gifford, and Owen Hill. (The prolific Dunlap, in particular, has used Berkeley as a setting for many of her crime novels.) 

Like almost all books published about Berkeley, this one has a couple of vexing editing flaws. The location map for the scenes of the crimes at the beginning of the book places the Berkeley yacht harbor in Emeryville and “Oceanview" in Oakland’s Rockridge (how did THAT happen?). 

There are some annoying misstatements such as street names (“Ashby Street”, “Bancroft Street”) and a few improbabilities. For example, someone being closely pursued by police during daylight across the Berkeley Marina is unlikely to be able to slip undetected on foot all the way back to San Pablo Avenue. But these are very minor issues within a basically solid work. 

You can get copies directly from the publisher’s website—, or contact your favorite local bookstore, or get a copy, as I did, on Ebay. The publisher’s website has the price at $11.96, reduced from $15.95.