Noir: A Novel

  • By Christopher Moore
  • William Morrow
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Drew Gallagher
  • April 10, 2018

Murder, snake pee, and a little green man? Where do we sign?

Noir: A Novel

The release of Christopher Moore’s new novel, Noir, should be celebrated. Not because it’s his crowning literary achievement (I don’t want to condemn him to that fate when, I hope, his literary output continues unabated for many more years), but because every Moore release is cause for celebration.

Over the past 25 years, he has consistently been one of the funniest and most prolific authors in America. And since Noir comes three long years after his last novel, Secondhand Souls, the excitement is palpable.

And Noir can further be celebrated as the offering of a writer who finally recognized that Dashiell Hammett’s fiction, while groundbreaking and setting the standard for detective literature, lacked a certain element.

Turns out, that certain element was a little green alien.

Moore has riffed on the Bible (or Biffed on the Bible) and the Bard in Lamb and Fool, respectively, so a foray into detective noir shouldn’t come as a surprise to his avid fan base. He is a writer who obviously exults in challenging his readers and himself, and Noir poses a number of challenges but affords Moore an opportunity to inject his usual humor into a narrative arc that we assume we know.

One of the problems with writing humorous novels is that it’s often difficult to sustain the laughs from beginning to end. Moore — along with the likes of Carl Hiaasen and Kurt Vonnegut, the latter of whom probably did it better than anyone else — is one of the rare few who can pull it off.

Beyond maintaining a level of wit throughout a book, however, is the pitfall of raising the bar so high so early in the narrative that it’s nearly impossible to clear it again. Noir starts on page one in such a fashion as the hero, bartender Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin, reflects upon how to delay a scream when he finds his boss lying dead on the floor of Sal’s Saloon:

“Now, I am the younger brother of an older brother who often measured the worth of a guy by his ability to not scream under pressure, and insisted, in fact, that if any screamlike sounds ever reached Ma and/or Pa, this younger brother, me, would receive a pasting such as I had never known, including severe and painful Indian burns to the bone — a threat my older brother, Judges, may he rest in peace, backed up with great enthusiasm through most of my boyhood.

“So, first I closed the back door, made sure it was solidly latched, then I glanced through the doorway into the front of the bar, which was still dark, and only then did I scream. Not the scream of a startled little girl, mind you, but a manly scream: the scream of a fellow who has caught his enormous dong in a revolving door while charging in to save a baby that was on fire or something.”

Moore is a master of metaphor and a sultan of simile and, well, a fine describer of the shriek that finding your boss dead might elicit (even if the mechanics of rushing into a burning building penis-first seem ill-advised). One of the great pleasures in Noir is trying to decipher the myriad comparisons that Moore employs, which are often nonsensical but no less entertaining for the effort.

After Sammy gathers himself, he realizes that his boss was likely killed by the snake Sammy ordered through the mail. Sammy has discovered that there is a booming black market in San Francisco for “snake whiz,” which many Asian men with erectile dysfunction are willing to pay handsomely for.

(Any criticism of Noir as being overly derivative of Hammett pretty much evaporates once the lucrative serpent pee is introduced.)

But while trying to capture his cash-cow venomous reptile, Sammy also uncovers a club of powerful, nefarious rich men who participate in some rather abhorrent rituals in the woods outside of the city.

Unfortunately for Sammy, his new love interest, Mrs. Stilton (or the “Cheese,” as she becomes affectionately known) agrees to participate in a gathering of these men, and Sammy must extricate her from their clutches or lose the love of his life — even if she’s only been in his life for a few days.

It takes an author of remarkable talents to keep a profitably urinating snake, a dame named for a dairy product, and a slimy extraterrestrial all running through a narrative. And, truthfully, there are times that a reader might feel like Kevin Kline’s character Otto in “A Fish Called Wanda,” asking about the middle part again.

In keeping with the noir style, there are many divergent plotlines that ultimately have to be tied up, and Moore’s solution — no spoilers here — is unique to the genre. But anyone who has ever laughed their way through one of his novels knows that unique is what he does best. The Good Book, Shakespeare, and now noir will never be the same.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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