Intended as the first of four volumes about the underbelly of Kuala Lumpur, the seedily evocative KL NOIR: RED is an enticing anthology consisting of fourteen works of fiction and one essay, all of which exhibit a loose adherence to noir tropes in order to deliver a highly localised creative investigation of Malaysia’s capital city. Series editor Amir Muhammad begins his introduction to this unusual collection by explaining how the term ‘noir’ is curiously situated in the Malaysian lexicon: ‘In Malaysia you can say “noir” to refer to men whose actual names are Anwar; hence we have an Opposition leader who can be called Noir Berahim. But in French it means “black”. Specifically, it refers to films and pulp fiction that flourished from the 1930s to 1950s in the US of A.’ This introduction provides a concise primer for the stories that follow, establishing the influence of Hollywood ‘B’-movies and the sardonic fiction of Jim Thompson on Malay pulp novels, while preparing the reader for the manner in which genre modifications have occurred due to cultural re-appropriation: private detectives are ‘not terribly indigenous to Malaysia’ while ‘supernatural beings are not immune from the grudges and mayhem that noir can thrive on.’ Some of the anticipated stock players occur in KL NOIR: RED, not to mention a steady succession of corpses, while the police appropriately remain on the periphery as individual mistakes, moral quagmires or mysteries sparsely play out. However, this is an anthology that thrives more on the often frightening duality of a developing metropolis where shopping malls are not merely meccas for the consumer class, but also havens for fringe illegality which have the potential to induce encroaching paranoia.
Adib Zaini’s opening story ‘The Runner’ sets the tone with vivid efficiency: a rebellious youth takes an evening job at an internet café and becomes embroiled in the heroin trade, proving to be a proficient drug dealer but too seduced by the lure of quick money to anticipate the repercussions associated with walking away. The specific workings of the narcotics network are sketched (patron requests for non-existent computer terminals are actually orders for product) while the students of the protagonist’s high school are seen to be as chemically dependent as those customers who frequent her place of part-time employment. Shaz Johar’s splendidly cynical ‘Asian Angel’ offers a celebrity culture spin on Sunset Boulevard (1950) as a self-absorbed diva meets a mysterious end in a hotel bathtub after assaulting the Indonesian actress who may be having an affair with her businessman husband. A jilted lover tries to win back his ex-girlfriend but keeps falling into bed with other women in Fadzlishah Johanabas’ ‘Kiss from a Rose’, which conveys the obsessive yearning of a self-destructive romantic whose daily routine is heading dangerously close to stalker territory. Marc de Faoite’s unsettling ‘Mamak Murder Mystery’ follows the efforts of a restaurant employee to deduce who has killed his co-worker as everyone he surveys on the nightshift becomes a possible suspect. The most graphic story in the anthology is arguably Megat Ishak’s grisly ‘Cannibal vs. Ah Long’ in which money lenders become the target of a smiling cannibal with an insatiable appetite. His devouring of debt collectors is perversely justifiable in a society that prompts cash-strapped citizens to borrow funds at rates of interest that rapidly escalate, making it impossible to keep up with repayments.
Certain spaces and industries reoccur throughout the anthology, with shopping centres becoming places of anxiety in two genuinely haunting entries. Power walking around the mall becomes an exercise in vigilance in Preeta Samarsan’s ‘Rukun Tetangga’ as a retiree becomes determined to stop a child killer from striking again, with the incessant patrolling of the city’s anonymous retail outlets ultimately resulting in the self-appointed protector’s exhaustion. Superstition comes to the fore in Eeleen Lee’s ‘The Oracle of Truth’ in which a fortune teller has a nasty run-in with a gang of thugs as traditional practises and vicious opportunism tragically collide in a pedestrian street mall. The sex industry features in Kris Williamson’s ‘Chasing Butterflies in the Night’, which deals with a serial killer who preys on prostitutes, while Dina Zaman’s stylised essay ‘After Dark, My Love’ explores the city’s increasingly blasé attitude towards red light activities as extra service is now offered in upscale establishments rather than being restricted to its back streets. As in the best anthologies, the stories in KL NOIR: RED complement one another while evidencing singular voices and varied approaches to narrative form. Some contributors utilise crime scenarios, with others skirting the edges of genre to express urban malaise through style tropes, while the references to specific areas that are scattered throughout provide a rough guide to a Kuala Lumpur which is at once tangible yet scarily unknowable. Traversing this city via noir tapestry suggests a sinister range of interconnected milieus from which curious readers are unlikely to emerge unscathed, although the intoxicating combination of Malay culture and genre trappings should ensure that most will want to recover in time for the next volume in the series.
KL NOIR: RED is published by Fixi Novo, an imprint of Buku Fixi.
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