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Noir Turned on Its Side

CHRISTOPHER MOORE has a penchant for parody. In his previous 15 novels, he has turned Shakespearean tragedy into unrivaled farce with Fool (a send-up of King Lear), and again in its sequel, The Serpent of Venice, in which Pocket, the Fool, reappears. The trilogy of Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck, and Bite Me upends vampire legend. Lamb, by its self-proclaimed subtitle, is The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. And Sacré Bleu exploits the “comedy d’art” of the Impressionist period. Noir, ostensibly a satiric mash-up of the sci-fi and hard-boiled mystery genres, cleverly morphs into a well-crafted novel about love and friendship.

Moore appends the novel with an afterword that might have best served as a foreword. In it, he offers an informative annotation of the genesis and inspiration for the setting (time and place), the neighborhoods (location), the characters (real and imagined), and the history of the noir genre (film and books). He explains that he had planned to deal with some of the basic themes of traditional noir material — the pessimism, moodiness, and menace of film noir; the protagonist of roman noir who might have been a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He wanted the novel to be “dark” and “desperate” with “fog, and gunplay, and danger.” He wanted something like hard-boiled fiction; instead, he says he ended up with “Perky Noir.” In fact, it’s more soft-boiled and closer to pesky noir.

There is no Sam Spade, no Philip Marlowe, no Mike Hammer. Moore’s protagonist, Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin, is closer to Nick Charles. There is more Damon Runyon, with lots of guys and dolls running around, than Raymond Chandler. The novel is closer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit than it is to Kiss Me Deadly.

Despite his deviations from classic noir, Moore still manages to deal with thematic touchstones of the genre. There is an element of cynicism, alienation, and general unease about the world. One of the secondary characters wonders if there just might be “the construct of an unyielding, all-seeing bureaucracy beyond our perception that is molding humanity to its own will and pleasure.”

One of those bureaucracies appears to be from outer space. Moore weaves in the sci-fi aspects of the novel from the very beginning in an opening prologue. There is the distinct possibility that from “across the vastness of space, we were being studied by intellects far superior to man’s, by beings that regarded us with envious eyes and, slowly and surely, were drawing their plans to come to our world and motorboat the bazooms of our dames.” Later in the novel, as if dropped in from Men in Black, government agents in sunglasses pursue a number of characters.

Like many a good hard-boiled fiction, Noir begins when a dame walks into a bar. At first glance, “twenty-three or -four” year old Stilton (a.k.a. The Cheese) Punani Toons might appear to be the typical central casting femme fatale. She’s introduced as a “size-eight dame in a size-six dress,” a “blonde, the dirty kind” with “valentine” lips, “shiny red and plump, but a little lopsided.” She “had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes.” But she’s not the standard seductress. This is a broad with moxie. A widow of World War II, Stilton is a “biscuit-slinger” at a five-and-dime counter. Previously, she’d been a welder in a navy shipyard. When she strides into Sal Gabelli’s San Francisco saloon and orders “something cheap, that goes down easy,” Sammy, the dumbstruck bartender, is instantly smitten. When Sammy calls her Toots, her retort is quick: “The name’s not Toots.” He’s determined to change her life and his. He realizes that “something is going to happen — something big and strange and hopeful.” It does — just not in the way Sammy imagines.

Moore’s supporting cast of characters wears other colorful sobriquets drawn from the noir genre. Sammy’s two closest friends are Eddie “Moo Shoes” Shu and Lonius “Lone” Jones. Eddie, a “thin Chinese guy wearing a very shiny suit and black-and-white wingtips” with “hair curled up and lacquered back to look like Frank Sinatra’s,” is host at Club Shanghai. Lonius, the towering doorman at the Moonlight Club, is “a black fellow about twenty-three feet tall and half again as wide.” There’s also Pookie O’Hara, a 260-pound crooked vice cop; Madam Mabel, who runs the city’s best-known brothel; the conniving General Emery; a kid named Kid; Petey, the talking snake; and an extraterrestrial moonman.

Nicknames are not the only way in which Moore pays vivid homage to the archetypal narrative style. Readers who might be offended by some of the language and attitudes of the narrators and characters are reminded by an opening author’s note that both are contemporary to the times — 1947 America. Before anything was politically correct. Noir touches on early facets of race, immigration, and gender equality.

Hard-boiled figures of speech are scattered liberally throughout the novel, encapsulating the nature of the midcentury city by the bay. Unlike Carl Sandburg’s Chicago fog which “comes in on little cat feet” and sits on “silent haunches,” Moore’s “spread[s] across the city like a drowned whore — damp, cold, smelling of salt and diesel — a sea-sodden street-walker who’d just bonked a tugboat” or is as “thick as chowder.” Striking similes extend to characters. Lone has a smile “like the grille of an Oldsmobile fresh out of the factory”; Madam Mabel looked “like a tube of red paint someone had squeezed in the middle.”

Moore, very much aware of the genre’s demands for sense of place, anchors his mysterious events in San Francisco in a “time after World War II and before cell phones,” giving him a “window of about sixty years.” It also gives him a setting that allows him to explore the historical character (social and cultural) of various San Francisco neighborhoods. There is “no small town so small as a neighborhood in a big city.” A diverse immigrant population is spread across several postwar environs. The Fillmore District, much of it destroyed after the 1906 earthquake, was “rebuilt with little wooden box houses […] permanent houses were never built, and over the years” it “had become a slum, where the poorest people outside of Chinatown lived.” It was Japantown until the Japanese were “shipped off to internment camps.” Then, by 1943, “black families moving from the South for work” settled there and “cops started calling it Dark Town.” Chinatown housed soldiers and defense workers. North Beach had been an Italian neighborhood since the late 1800s, “populated by fishermen from Italy who migrated and brought their food and culture with them.” By the 1940s, it was the “mecca for the gay community […] before it migrated to the Castro.” Also in the 1940s, the Tenderloin was the theater district. It “was jumping” with workers from the shipyards and factories living in SRO (single-room occupancy hotels).

Though Sammy and his friends are cut from whole cloth, they move around in a rendition of San Francisco rooted firmly in historic reality. Sal’s saloon (though not Sal) is based on an actual bar. A diner in the Tenderloin is the basis for a fictional coffee shop. There was a famous female drag club, Tommy’s Joint, where lesbians in “tux and tails and red lips” impersonated Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire. In the novel, it is the successful Jimmy’s Joynt run by Mary Vasco who wore a “diamond stickpin the size of a puppy’s eye” and “spats over patent-leather tap shoes.” Jook houses — where workingmen could slurp rice porridge or drink a broth enhanced with a secret ingredient catered almost exclusively to Chinese Americans — were real. So was a nefarious secret society known as The Bohemian Club, an exclusive brain trust whose members (“Presidents, princes, scientists, artists, Nobel Prize mugs”) met in the woods north of San Francisco to worship a “giant concrete owl” and perform other “well-documented” rituals.

It’s the nature of The Bohemian Club that factors into the main plot of Noir. When Stilton ambles into the bar, other denizens there include 60-year-old Air Force General Remy and Bokker, first mate on a freighter out of Cape Town with trade on his mind. On Remy’s mind is the desire to become a member of The Bohemian Club. He wants the exclusive status that membership would bring him. His idea is to hire a number of Bettys, “shopgirls and secretaries,” women in gingham dresses looking like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to entertain the men of the organization. He hopes Sal can find the women without resorting to using Mabel’s services at her brothel. Bokker’s scheme, on the other hand, involves a mamba snake from South Africa. Jook joints supposedly offered snake urine as an early version of Viagra. Sammy decides it is a money-making venture he’d like to join.

That’s when everyone’s troubles begin. Bodies begin to pile up. It looks as though there’s a serial killer snake on the loose (victims include an “old Chinese broad behind [a] cabbage place,” and a guy in an alley). And Stilton has gone missing. Sammy feels as though the “only light in [his] miserable life” has gone out. He sets out to find her. Here is where Sammy comes closest to the traditional noir hero. He encounters the kind of stylish, gritty crime and intrigue familiar to readers of the classic genre.

Unbeknownst to him, Stilton and Myrtle, a friend of hers at the five-and-dime, a “rangy redhead with lots of legs and quite a little gawkiness,” agree to go to the woods when Sal makes them an offer they can’t refuse. What Sammy does know, from the novel’s prologue, is that Sal dies after he gets bitten by the snake. He spends much of the book trying to get rid of the body. He also spends a good deal of the book getting rid of Pookie’s body after he and Eddie kidnap him in retaliation for a racist slur against Lone. Suffice it to say that ice and an ice bucket play significant roles in several subplots.

So do several extraterrestrials “pulled from a wreckage at Roswell.” One of these aliens, the moonman, winds up vying for top billing with the snake when he becomes “the subject” of interest of the “guys in sunglasses.” He also ends up in a rumble seat, accompanied by Sammy and Stilton escaping from members of the Bohemian clan. That’s when he learns to drive. That’s when Sammy and Stilton observe the alien’s superior knowledge when he uses “old radio parts, doorbell batteries, a screwdriver, rusted pliers, and a tarnished cornet” to build a blaster that can turn cows and men into white ash.

One other minor character — an attorney — figures in the web that Moore weaves. Alton Stoddard the Third functions as the “secret code word” that opens doors, stops characters in their tracks, and becomes the coda to Sammy and Stilton’s excursion with the moonman. They confront Stoddard in his office with that ice bucket and some ashes, threatening him unless he agrees to their demands.

Eventually, romance and friendship triumph. What starts out looking like typical hard-boiled fiction turns soft-boiled. It remains noirish but never boorish. Noir transcends its genre to become about more than a protagonist who is “a regular guy in a sketchy situation.” About a lot more than a dame who wiggles into a bar, shimmies onto a barstool, and orders an old-fashioned.

There’s nothing old-fashioned about the way Moore adeptly manipulates his narrative. While adhering to the basic tenets of noir fiction and film, he surpasses the usual by introducing sci-fi elements into the mix. Even readers with ophidiophobia will delight in learning to believe in and befriend, even coming to love, an omniscient talking snake named Petey and an extraterrestrial moonman who can drive. Eventually, everyone is “snug as a mug in a rug.” Noir turns a legendary genre on its side and offers grand entertainment at every level.

¤

Robert Allen Papinchak is a book reviewer, fiction writer, and former English professor.

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