Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Books: "Noir," A Twist On A Classic Genre


By Christopher Moore

William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, $27.99

Christopher Moore has made a name for himself by reinventing beloved literary genres, and his latest work is no exception.

Moore's new novel, simply titled Noir, is an off-kilter homage to the classic 1940s dime novel as only he could conceive of it.

With a bit of Raymond Chandler, part Damon Runyan, with a generous dose of Looney Tunes to bring out its zaniness, Noir is a love letter to a San Francisco that has passed, before developers with tech money took over its streets.

The setting is 1947, and the war has recently ended. The City by the Bay is bustling with all manner of colorful eccentrics and two-bit operators. Some of these characters arrived during the war years, while others can trace their roots to before the earthquake in 1906.
Sammy Tiffin, who has the moniker "two Toes" which from his Italian boss Sal Gabelli. Sammy, who is not too fond of this nickname, is the night bartender at Sal's unnamed saloon.

Sammy, who is vague about a past he is not too proud of that left him with an annoying limp, keeps a low profile, but that is all set to change thanks to a beautiful woman and an ill-conceived money-making scheme.

The woman, described as "a size-eight dame in a size-six dress," wanders into Sal's one night looking for a drink and some company. Her name is Stilton, as she says, "like the cheese," and Sammy is immediately taken by the "sad daffy" blonde he takes to calling the Cheese. She lost her husband during the war, and now works at a five and dime lunch counter. She lives way up on Telegraph Hill, but for Sammy it's worth the time to climb up all those stairs for a little razzmatazz.

Later on, Sammy's best friend, Eddie Moo Shoes, takes him to a noodle house in Chinatown where old men drink snake urine to stiffen their resolve. At this point, Sammy has a brainstorm, in which he realizes that a South African sailor he's met at the bar has a link to exotic snakes being smuggled into the port at Oakland: an endless source of snake urine. It seemed like easy money, leading Sammy to think, What could go wrong?

The answer was plenty, as it turned out. Sammy has to deal with an escaped black mamba, a dead boss, a heroin-drugged racist Irish cop, and two mysterious government agents in black suits who are sniffing around.

Sammy is kept up to date by a potty-mouthed street urchin who runs errands for him, including reports of a UFO sighting in Roswell, New Mexico that has the nation on edge. 

The martians are the least of Sammy's troubles, as the Cheese mysteriously vanishes at a clandestine get-together of the elite and mysterious Bohemian Club. Sammy vows to find rescue the woman he loves.

Moore says of his work, "When I started Noir, I envisioned a story about the poor working mug, Sammy, and the dangerous dame who tumbles his life, the Cheese. There would be fog, and gunplay, and danger. That's what I thought. I know, I know. What I ended up with is essentially 'Perky Noir'...but what was I going to do? Noir was already typed at the top of every page."

If you are a fan of noir movies and books, you will appreciate Moore's turning the genre on its head, while holding close to, and celebrating, its beloved traditions.

Noir is a very entertaining read that you won't be able to put down, with a multi-layered story that builds as you dive into it. 

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