Baghdad Noir has some standout stories, but the most essential reading in it may be Shimon’s excellent, thoughtful introduction, which breaks down the literary history of Iraq and explains that the reader may well be holding the first anthology of Iraqi crime stories. Noir themes may be embedded in the fabric of Iraq, but noir as a literary tradition is not ... The lushness of much of the scene-setting only makes the stories’ gothic turns more chilling. The honor killing in Hussain al-Mozany’s Empty Bottles feels nightmarish enough—'I could see the severed hand,' the narrator reports, 'which looked plump and pale yellow and was covered in dried blood. I saw it clearly, and I realized that it had to be the hand of a woman who was still young'—that it is unsurprising that it eventually starts to feel like one.
While all Iraqis will readily agree that their life has always been noir, the majority of the stories in Baghdad Noir are set in the years following the American invasion of 2003,' ... These stories deal with subjects from militia insurrection to a mental hospital to orders from mujahideen to honor killings; what struck me about them was how firmly each story is cemented in Iraqi culture, but how little a sense of geography they allow. I don't think that's accidental, although it may be subconscious. In a city torn apart by history, religion, armies, and insurrection, a sense of geography isn't easy to give — sometimes, as in The Apartment by Salih, a character has so much trouble just crossing from one side of town to the other that tragedy ensues ... Yes, some of these stories go on too long, or have uneven structures, or leave out details that might make them stronger, but I was captivated by seeing how different they all were.
What is surprising here is the breadth of settings and eras for these stories, ranging from 1950, during the relatively stable period of the Hashemite monarchy, through the paranoid years of Ba’athist rule, the sanctions era of the 1990s, and the violent years after 2003, up to the more recent threat of terrorism embodied by Daesh’s (ISIS) draconian rule over Iraq’s north ... The Iraqi authorities in general, and Baghdad’s police specifically, don’t come off well in this collection, being either ineffectual or actively criminal ... In his introduction, Shimon notes that a prominent theme in Baghdad Noir is family, and particularly the fraying of family bonds as siblings and relatives turn on each other and traditional ties loosen. I would argue, though, that the true common theme in these stories—a theme very much in the spirit of noir—is betrayal. Characters in this collection are frequently on the receiving end of unpleasant epiphanies. And as this engaging group of stories amply demonstrates, betrayal—whether by authorities, religious leaders, neighbors, colleagues, or liberators—is a subject that Iraqis know all too well.