At the first sentence of this review I’m having trouble because: “Christopher Moore’s 2018 novel Noir is a hard-boiled detective story set on San Francisco’s mean streets…” only it’s not quite, okay, so, “Noir is a darkly funny comedy set in 1947 San Francisco, following cops and wise guys and…” only it’s not quite, or not only, so maybe: “Noir is a dark comedy set in 1947 with corrupt cops, sexy dolls, men in black, space aliens with a kinda-criminal bartender main character and this horrible little kid…”
Okay. Fine. It’s by Christopher Moore. By now you should know what you’re getting into.
Sammy Tiffin works at Sal’s, a seedy bar. One night he comes in to find a crate in the back room, addressed to him. Sal, his equally seedy boss, has opened it. Sal is dead in a disgusting way, and Sammy is concerned – concerned because the crate held a black mamba snake which is now loose.
Why would Sammy have a black mamba snake delivered to his place of business? Why would he call his new girlfriend The Cheese? Why does the corrupt cop hate Sammy? What does Sammy’s Chinese-American friend Eddie see in that girl Lois? Why doesn’t that Air Force general know that there are no women allowed at Bohemian Grove? What did Eddie’s Uncle Ho do to that cat? Who is the mysterious narrator who pops up now and then? Where did the little boy in Sammy’s building, who Sammy has more or less adopted, learn such strange and colorful epithets for people? Who, or what, is the moonman? All these questions and more will be answered by the time you get to the end of Noir, and some of those answers will even make sense.
Moore tries for a sense of period here and, for the most part, succeeds. In a forward to the book, he says, “The language and attitudes of the narrators and the characters regarding race, culture and gender are contemporary to that time and may be disturbing to some. Characters and events are fictional.” I suspect his publisher made him put that in, and the publisher was right to do so, because the book is filled with slurs in all directions. It feels appropriate to the story and still a little uncomfortable. Sammy is a pretty open-minded guy for 1947 but he has his moments. I loved the character of Lone Jones, but his belief that he isn’t really black made me a little uncomfortable. In an afterword to the book, Moore talked about a real life experience in the 1970s that was the genesis of the Jones character. It was uncomfortable too, and Moore acknowledges that. For me, while people talked and acted racist and sexist, the story did not approve of the behavior. I mean, it seemed like Moore would employ a stereotype, and then the story would turn around and punch that stereotype in the face. The Chinese plotline, however, is a little harder to rationalize, and it doesn’t punch the stereotype in the face.
Mostly, Noir takes a noir plot structure and then goes madcap crazy with it in a way we’ve all come to expect from Moore. It’s a big, tasty seven-layer-dip of craziness. There is an air force general who is trying to get into the secretive, exclusive Bohemian Club. At first he wants to bring a group of women to Bohemian Grove for the club’s annual two week party. No prostitutes, he says, although he will pay the women and they’ll be expected to “be nice” to the global movers and shakers. When this plan fails, the ambitious general comes up with something more enticing… but not before the women, including Sammy’s new girlfriend Stilton (aka The Cheese) and her friend Myrtle have gotten on the bus. Sammy must rescue The Cheese, dodge the mysterious men with dark sunglasses who are following him, nursemaid a corrupt, racist cop who was cold-cocked by Lone Jones, and find a lost back mamba. There’s also this thing about Roswell, New Mexico and a crashed “weather balloon” and three “subjects” who were recovered from the weather balloon. It’s a tall order and Moore manages to pull it off, while somehow still creating a tender love story and writing another love note to the City by the Bay.
There’s always some little thing that stands out in Moore book even with the seven layers of weirdness, and in this book it’s the boy in Sammy’s apartment building, who has quite a mouth on him. Here are a few examples of his name-calling:
“When the Martians get here you’ll fold like a furlong.”
“A furlong is a unit of measure. It’s an eighth of a mile.”
“No it ain’t and you’re a lyin’ furlong for sayin’ it is.”
“…I didn’t tell ‘em nothin’ the dirty marimbas.”
“A marimba is a musical instrument, Kid. Like a xylophone.”
“No it ain’t. You’re a stinkin’ liar.”
Other put-downs include “solenoid,” “mascarpone,” and “ya dirty manchego.”
Basically, if you like Christopher Moore, you will probably like Noir. If you haven’t read him or think you don’t like him, there are obstacles to overcome here. The complete irreverence for everything might be hard to overcome. I like Moore, so I loved this. I also live in Sonoma County, California, so the accurate descriptions of Bohemian Grove left me snickering. It’s Christopher Moore. You know what you’re getting into.