Christopher Moore’s Noir arrives three long years after the release of his last work, Secondhand Souls, one of the longest in a career fast-approaching three decades. That’s practically an eternity for hardcore fans in this age of instant gratification and attention-deficit entertainments. They needn’t have worried, though Moore’s fifteenth book requires them to regress, both culturally and literally, back to a genre and period full of dames, dongs, and no shortage of dingbats. What else could be expected from an author who has become, if nothing else, predictably unpredictable?
Noir, the hardboiled detective kind, has largely faded into the growing memory hole of once-prominent literary genres, replaced by the annual iterations of sausage-factory fiction of Michael Connelly and James Patterson. Just the word conjures up a striking images, of contrasting blacks and whites, shadowy figures, and exaggerated dialogue spilling over with despair. Even these memories owe more to filmed noir than the written variety, which the author freely admits, but you gotta work with what you’ve got.
More pulp than parody, it’s likely that Moore is drawing from the same creative wellspring that inspired a younger Spielberg or even Vonnegut, where fiction is never a few steps from reality. In this way Moore’s Noir is both absurdly referential and reverential, skillfully blending the conventions of literary noir with the cinematic, contrasting expectations held together thanks to the author’s powerful gifts for appropriating the language of whatever genre he’s playing in.
How to describe the plot without giving away the game? It’s 1947 San Francisco, prefaced with a trigger warning that language and attitude to follow may be disturbing to some, especially in the realm of race, culture and gender. The good old days to some; to others, not so much. Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin is a bartender working at a local gin joint cursed with a bum foot and mysterious past, two facts that shaped his past and impending future.
Hoping to make a few extra bucks on the side, Sammy attempts to needle in on the growing market for underground “snake whiz”, a required ingredient for a Chinatown remedy where aging lotharios lap up a mix of noodles and urine to give certain body parts a ‘stiff upper lip’, if you catch my drift. The deadlier the snake, the more powerful the effect, a fact which leads Sammy to order a dangerous black mamba from Idaho. The plan takes a dangerous turn when the snake makes a break for it, leaving a trail of punctured-neck bodies around town.
Sammy’s life takes a turn when in walks Mrs. Stilton, blessed with “the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes — a size-eight dame in a size-six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it.” She’s tailormade for Sammy, who affectionately calls her the Cheese, just like the English variety. The two begin a whirlwind romance before, wouldn’t you know it, she goes missing, leaving a distraught Sammy to navigate a city every bit as dangerous as it is seductive.
Noir’s post-war San Francisco bristles with a vitality of a working culture that isn’t concerned with how offensive it may appear to modern readers, despite Moore’s early trigger warning that his depictions of race, culture, and gender are “contemporary” to the period. In short, it’s refreshingly unsanitized for the modern audience, allowing Moore to present a very different American Dream, one of segregated night clubs, crooked cops, female drag queens, and bootleggers (quite literally, smuggled hooch in footwear) to make their way in the land of milk and honey.
Let’s not forget Petey, the black mamba snake who isn’t the villain, just the narrator. Petey loves a nice, fat rat (the rodent kind) and quick turn of phrase. “Grandma, what am I, some squiggly kid fresh out of the egg? You swing on me, you get the fang.” Did I mention Petey’s a talking snake?
Then there’s the Moonman, a missing extraterrestrial who survived crashing his (?) flying saucer at Roswell and now being hunted by a pair of identical government agents hot on the trail? Armed with a special-built raygun capable of blasting would-be kidnappers into mushroom clouds of dust, it’s moments like these that turn Noir into Men in Black meet E.T.
If Moore’s plot begins to feel a little incoherent, it’s not just you. Perhaps no current author writes more to genre specificity than Moore; he’s never met one he couldn’t lampoon or show a winking appreciation. Whatever you call his unique brand of comedy, satire, spoofs, even vampire romance and Shakespearean riffs, his catalog demonstrates the type of diversity that’s hell on poor librarians trying to sort them.
Even Stephen King’s recent attempt at detective fiction, the largely successful Mercedes Killer trilogy, promised fans a more straightforward, supernatural-free hardboiled tale (complete with fedora-topped Sam Spade standin Bill Hodges), only to succumb to King’s penchant for telekinesis and the unexplained. With Noir, however, Moore sustains his absurdist stylings throughout, an almost entirely restrained effort, even when touching on hokum-like aliens, Bohemian Groves and serpents given to narration. The results are more “perky noir”, Moore admits, much closer to “Damon Runyon meets Bugs Bunny than Raymond Chandler meets Jim Thompson.”
The fast-paced rat-a-tat narrative style of Noir practically demands a period-accurate reading (a listen to the fine audiobook, read at a playful clip by Johnny Heller, confirms this to be true). It’s a given that not everyone will appreciate Moore’s genre-blending this time around, or his approximations of a bygone era and its foibles, but one gets the sense of careful consideration for the reader. His afterward shares several of the book’s surprising sources, both real and fictionalized, confirming not just his love for genre fiction but that of San Francisco’s rich history and its people, warts and all. The result is a homage that’s both hysterically funny and thought-provoking, just on its own terms.