Lagos Noir is the latest in the series of “Noir” books from Akashic Books that have been taking readers on a tour of the backstreets and hidden lives of cities around the world. Featuring stories collected by writers from the city featured, this collection is edited by Nigerian born novelist and poet Chris Abani.
While most readers will associate the designation “Noir” with detective stories featuring hard boiled investigators dealing with assorted villains and femme fatales while trying to solve some sort of nasty murder, it also can refer to any depiction of life that goes on in the shadows. Not necessarily criminal activity, but something unsavoury or unsettling. The collection of 13 stories Abani has put together bings Lagos, largest city and former capital of Nigeria and one of the largest cities in Africa, to life.
From seedy back allies to the houses of the wealthy, we are given a glimpse into a world few North American readers have ever experienced or quite probably, understand. This is a place where corruption among everyone, from police to the lowliest of landlords, is expected. Whether its motorcycle taxi drivers, (known as okada) having to pay a percentage of their takings to random police roadblocks or a person seeking to rent an apartment having to line the pockets of both real estate agents and landlords to even have a hope of finding a somewhat decent apartment.
However, that doesn’t stop people from dreaming of a better life. Yet as we see the obstacles placed in their way are pretty much insurmountable no matter what most of the characters we meet try. Theres the honest cop in the collection’s opening story, “What They Did That Night” by Jude Dibia, who finds not only his fellow cops don’t want him investigating a murder, but his wife aligned with the criminals as well in demanding he take their bribes and look away.
Then theres the poor okada driver in “Heaven’s Gate” (Chika Unigwe) who just wants to make enough money to help his family back home and rent himself a nice apartment. However you can’t always prepare for the unexpected, and he discovers corrupt cops are just as dangerous as criminals.
The stories aren’t all dark. There’s some wonderful moments of humour as well. Nnedi Okorafor’s “Showlogo” is the story of the so-called indestructible small time criminal known as Showlogo. When thing get too hot in Lagos for him he stows away in the undercarriage of a plane bound for New York City.
Somehow he not only survives the journey but also the jumping out of the airplane onto a NYC suburb’s sidewalk. His audacity is only matched by his durability as he casually picks himself up off the sidewalk and strolls off to find out what’s what – much to the amazement of the two who witnessed his fall from the sky.
Each story in its turn peels back another layer of the mystery surrounding the city of Lagos. Perhaps not all of the stories are what we would call “Noir”, but they all help to create a sense of intrigue and danger about the city they have in common. Every city has its secrets and dirty linen – these stories give us a glimpse of that reality in Lagos.
Chris Abani has pulled together a wonderful collection of stories form many different voices. In some ways its like having 13 separate tour guides each of whom are dedicated to showing you a different aspect of their city. From roadblocks manned by bandits who demand money and ATM cards so they can steal your cash to even a take on the ‘you’ve been left money by a Nigerian’ scam which plays on European stereotypes of Africans and Nigerians beautifully.
This may not be the book the Nigerian tourist industry wants you to read as an inducement to come visit their country, but it sure is a lot of fun to read. Each of the writers brings their own little piece of Lagos to life with such vividness you can almost hear the rats stirring in the garbage and feel the layers of humidity and heat weighing on your skin.
(Originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Lagos Noir Edited by Chris Abani)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.