Down These Strange Streets, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, is another of the spate of urban fantasy anthologies this fall. Its focus is a bit different, as Martin defines “urban fantasy” not under the larger umbrella used by anthologies like Ellen Datlow’s Naked City (reviewed here) but as a specific bastard-child of horror and noir — he cites characters like Harry Dresden and Anita Blake as the new Phillip Marlowe(s) of this genre, and quotes a little Raymond Chandler to define what his idea of the private detective figure should be.
This is a fairly specific framework for an anthology, focused on crime-stories in supernatural settings — interestingly, Martin’s definition has exactly zilch to do with urban settings or cities — but the actual stories do not mesh as well as one would think. Telling, perhaps, is that the authors Martin cites as good examples of this kind of urban fantasy don’t have stories in the book. Instead, the table of contents reads a bit like a recent bestsellers list. Generally, I enjoy the noir-inspired sort of urban fantasy; I, too, like Jim Butcher quite a lot. Despite that, I was not impressed by this collection.
The previous big theme anthologies edited by Dozois and Martin have been pretty great, with reliably good fiction that fit the theme not-too-closely, but well enough to match. Down These Strange Streets follows the same formula but with less success. There are a few reasons for this, like clumsy stories, a lack of cohesion between the contents, and a theme that doesn’t bear out through the entire book. While the introduction posits a fairly specific kind of story, the actual tales in the anthology frequently don’t match with that construction, and a few aren’t even anything I could reasonably construe as “urban fantasy” at all, no matter which definition we use. Dark fantasy, on the other hand, is the right term for those tales, even though it’s the term Martin shuns in his introduction. Additionally, many of these stories are part of existing universes — in moderation, that’s fine, but it’s not in moderation here.
There are good stories in this anthology (even a few queer ones), and it’s a big book so surely there will be something for most readers, but the overall impression I was left with wasn’t positive.
The opening story by Charlaine Harris (“Death by Dahlia”) is, to be frank, appallingly bad. I cannot imagine in what alternate universe this seemed like the best story to begin a collection with; if it simply had to be included, it would have been better sandwiched between two good stories in the middle. I’m actually a reader of Harris’s Southern Vampire series, and have been for years, because they’re fun and entertaining — and much, much more competently written than this story. The prose is sloppy, the descriptions prosaic, the mystery obvious; it’s all around unsatisfying. It was a struggle to finish.
Unfortunately, it’s not the only story I didn’t care for. The Simon R. Green is another series-related tale, and the noir trope it chooses to replicate is “sexpot with a secret who turns out to be dangerously crazy,” which is (as one might assume) my least favorite noir stereotype of all time. The Glen Cook story, “Shadow Thieves,” isn’t terribly well developed; I assume for readers of the series it must work better, but I found the universe to be jumbled and the characters flat.
As for the good stuff: Joe R. Lansdale’s contribution, “The Bleeding Shadow,” is a cosmic-horror-meets-the-blues-devil story that has great atmosphere and narrative voice, told as it is by a black sometimes-private eye in the 1950s. It seems to be the closest thing here to Martin’s own definition of urban fantasy: mean streets — really mean, as it’s the segregated south — and monstrous horrors. (Admittedly, it does contain the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope, another I don’t care for, but he at least seems to be trying not to glamorize the stereotype too much.)
“The Difference Between a Puzzle and a Mystery” by M. L. Hanover is deliciously creepy, and I did quite enjoy it, but — it doesn’t strike me as an urban fantasy story, despite the detective and the supernatural. I’ll let this one slide as a “close enough,” but the angle of the story is a little off from the specifications of the introduction. All the same, it’s well-written, philosophically interesting, and just the right kind of skin-crawling by the end. The series tie-in that I enjoyed the most was Patricia Brigg’s “In Red, With Pearls” — it stands well on its own, and the relationships are complicated and emotional. The mystery, too, is great; lots of red herrings and a satisfying finale that includes difficult moral decisions. Just my sort of story.
There are a few middling but still good offerings, including “The Lady is a Screamer” by Conn Iggulden, which has a strong narrative voice. Though the narrator’s generalized womanizing and misogyny are uncomfortable, it fits his character. Still, the ending is a kicker, and the noir-ghost-hunting bit is fun. The science fiction genetic experimentation story by Laurie R. King, “Hellbender,” is an odd take on scifi “urban fantasy” that I haven’t seen before, which made it interesting, if not entirely believable — generally, illegal research/torture labs aren’t that easy to break into, or so I assume.
The majority of the stories aren’t impressive or impressively awful, just middle-of-the-road, but when compared with the other urban fantasy anthologies that have been coming out recently the blandness of these offerings seems worse. I remain disappointed with Down These Strange Streets, which I had quite looked forward to as a general reader of urban fantasy. It is lacking in cohesion and enthusiasm, and on some memorable occasions, quality. The proliferation of series tie-ins which did not stand well on their own wasn’t a help to the book, either. I hope that the next of the Martin & Dozois collections doesn’t make similar missteps, as I’ve enjoyed their prior efforts at co-editing. As it stands, this is a mediocre anthology, one I would recommend mostly to folks who are fans of any one or more of the series that have stories included — not an unfamiliar reader.