Christopher Moore loves language. That might be an odd claim to make about an author who popularized the term fuckstockings, but I’ll stand by it. If a guy rewrites Shakespearean plays with pornographic subplots he either has a deep and abiding passion for Elizabethan English or he’s a complete wack job. Now that I think about it, he’s probably both. Regardless, any time you pick up a novel by Moore, you can expect to have fun with words, and Noir is no exception.
Noir is set in 1947 San Francisco and is narrated (mostly) by a bartender named Sammy Tiffin, known to his dickhead boss as Sammy Two Toes. I say “mostly narrated,” because some chapters are told in omniscient third-person view. When the mystery narrator is eventually revealed, it turns out to be (in true Moore style) exceedingly random but admittedly pretty funny.
Sammy’s life changes the day a dame called Stilton (forever after known as the Cheese) walks into the bar and catches his eye. They fall for each other, she disappears, and some other stuff involving a UFO happens. I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, not because I don’t want to give anything away, but because the language and style of the novel are much more interesting.
When I saw Moore at a book signing for Noir, he talked about how he had been researching 1947 San Francisco and made a suggestion to his publisher about doing, “a Maltese-falcony thing.” By his own admission, though, what he ended up writing was “. . . a lot closer to Damon Runyon meets Bugs Bunny than Raymond Chandler meets Jim Thompson. . . .” Or Dashiell Hammett, presumably, if we’re sticking with the Maltese Falcon analogy.
If you haven’t read anything by Damon Runyon (I’ve only read a short story or two), you may still be familiar with him: the musical Guys and Dolls is based on some of his work. He was known for characters with colorful names (Nathan Detroit, Harry the Horse) and for his devotion to literary present tense. Moore picks up these literary traits and makes them exponentially more absurd (all due respect to Runyon).
For example, in addition to having characters with names like “Eddie Moo Shoes,” there’s a kid that hangs around Sammy’s place who does errands for him. The kid talks tough but also has a creative understanding of vocabulary. At various points, the kid refers to some goons as “dirty marimbas” and “stinkin’ manchego.” When Sammy tries to correct him and suggests he run new vocabulary words by him, the kid says, “I only say other stuff ’cause you get jumpy when I call ’em cocksuckers.”
In a delightful diner scene, the Cheese and her waitress friend Myrtle take diner-speak over the top with more and more outrageous descriptions, to the fry-cook’s annoyance. A cheeseburger, well done, with fries becomes “Crust cow and frog sticks! Drag it through Wisconsin.” “Is that what I ordered,” the middle-aged schlub at the counter asks worriedly. The scene ends with Stilton teasing the cook with a banana split order, “Axe-murder a monkey and hump it three times!”
Also, Sammy and the Cheese refer to sex as razzmatazz, which I find wonderfully wholesome and cute.
Because Moore is mimicking language and attitudes of 1947, there are a lot of references to “dames” and “toots,” and minorities aren’t treated in what I’d call the most enlightened manner by some of the characters. There’s even an Author’s Note (though I suspect the publisher had more to do with it) at the start of the novel warning readers that the language and attitudes regarding “race, culture, and gender are contemporary to that time and may be disturbing to some.” I’ll be honest, though; that stuff didn’t bother me. The scene I found most disturbing was one at a Chinese restaurant where old Chinese men are paying top dollar to drink snake piss.
So I’m torn about how to rate this book. It did make me laugh at times, and I admire Moore’s creative use of language. But the plot is rather thin, and there’s one subplot involving a racist cop that feels like it was added to pad the story. Finally, the UFO stuff takes a long time to pay off. The components are all there, but the novel as a whole falls short. If you’re in the mood for some good one-liners and a bit of silliness, give it a go.