‘Strange and unsettling’: Review of ‘Lagos Noir’

Chris Abani‘s introduction to this strange and unsettling collection of noir shorts reveals the essence of the collection’s geographical inspiration: “the unsettled darkness that continues to lurk in the city’s streets, alleys, and waterways.” Lagos is the first African city to be featured in the Akashic Noir Series, joining London Noir, Tehran Noir, Moscow Noir and Tel Aviv Noir in the ever-expanding exploration of what lurks in urban shadows. And where better on the continent to begin? Which African city is more noir than Lagos, with its tales of ambiguously effective witchcraft; sunken watery alleyways; 419 scams; where deceit and magic shake hands while the populace scramble to survive their sleight-of-hand?

Edited by Abani, Lagos Noir features work from some of Nigeria’s most prominent writers, including Nnedi Okorafor and Leye Adenle, both of whom have had success in the novel form as well. It is fascinating to read a well-known novelist’s short fiction. It can be quite revealing of their writerly preoccupations as the recurrent, condensed themes and stories betray the writers’ predilections, for action or dialogue for example, or for plot over style as in the case of many of the writers in this collection. A collection like this one is certainly revealing of the emergent predisposition in Nigerian writing for a privileging of development of plot and trope characters over style and form. That being said, the explorations of noir characteristics in Wale Lawal‘s second-person-narrated ‘Joy’, and in the family drama ‘The Swimming Pool’ by Sarah Lapido Manyika were efficiently executed, while ‘Pemi Aguda‘s Choir Boy is perhaps the most disturbing and therefore perhaps the most successful example.

Chris Abani, noted Nigerian author, at a TEDx event in 2007.
Image: Eric Hersman

Chris Abani’s final concluding story in the collection, ‘Killer Ape’, is interestingly the only one in the collection to explore the truly macabre presence of British expats in Nigeria in the late 1950s, foreshadowing the chaos they would leave in their wake following independence. The rest of the stories, separated into three parts, ‘Cops and Robbers’, ‘In A Family Way’ and ‘Arrivals and Departures’, detail a modern Lagos, moving across the contemporary geographical landscape as though it were comprehensible, and revealing that, on the ground, it is not. This collection’s stand-out quality is its location, because it is not simply that these are noir-style stories set in an African city, but that Lagos itself, mired in a history of trade, conquest, oil, and corruption, is a noir tale in its own right. The megacity sprawls like a creature crawling from the lagoon, generating the dysfunction of the wealthy suburbs Ikoyi and Victoria Island, and the dilapidation of parts of Agege and Egbeda.

The collection reveals a deeply cynical and fatalistic view by some of Nigeria’s most prominent writers of the megacity’s inexhaustible and inevitable self-destruction. This is typical of the genre, in which characters struggle to resist, or are inextricably though reluctantly imbricated in, corrupt or evil systems. The police characters are, all-bar-one, corrupt and abusive. The housing market forces a man into inhumane circumstances. Women are provoked to violence and madness by sexual abuse. The evil depicted in these stories is a more pervasive, systemic dysfunction than individualised or singularly supernatural.

Victoria Island, 1998.
Image: Sourced

If classic noir emerged from “the ennui and desperation” that followed the wars of the early twentieth century, a modern reading of the genre requires very little encouragement to conclude that Lagos, invested and divested by turns across centuries of conquest and independence, and post-independence, would be ripe for those elements that constitute the noir genre. And yet, it is funny as well, displaying a self-deprecating humour and self-awareness. Though at times repetitious in character tropes and style, this disruptive collection presents Lagos with unsettling insight and pure noir fantasy.



Chelsea Haith is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. She has worked in the South African small magazine and publishing industries and her current research interests include speculative fiction, urban studies, life writing, and global literatures. She is a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, and is a 2018-2019 Associate Reviews Editor at Africa in Words.

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