A Little Noir For Yar

Noir

As a diehard reader of detective pulp fiction and a connoisseur of comedy, I may have found religion in Noir by Christopher Moore. Not to be confused with the religion I found in Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.

Lamb

If you’re a fan of Damon Runyon and his unique use of language, Noir might be just the ticket for you.

“He looked like one of those dried-up faces you carve out of an apple in third grade to teach you that time is cruel and we are all just going to shrivel up and die, so there’s no point in getting out of bed.”

Similes and metaphors run wild, like turkeys in search of a barber… Scratch that. Like the Portuguese armada during their defeat in 1588… Well, let’s just say that words are not restrained by the laws of gravity in Moore’s writing.

And speaking of gravity, classy ladies fill the pages of this prestigious tome.

“She had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes — a size eight dame in a size six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it as they watched her wiggle in the door and take a seat at the end of the bar.”

Moore is one of the few contemporary authors who does a credible job of creating Runyonesque prose. Each page is teeming with hoodlums, graft, gats, lookers and betties all ensconced in a miasma of despair and alcohol then rolled in a fine powder of lust and sex.

“It was the kind of kiss that he wanted to wake up to and keep refreshing periodically until he got one long last one, salty with tears, in his casket.”

For my ears, the story is almost inconsequential. Down-on-his-luck guy works in San Francisco as a bartender, is indebted to a gangster, falls for a dame… space aliens ensue, etc. etc. You know the drill, your typical post-war comic sci-fi noir thriller. Moore dots the proverbial i’s with his copious wit, leaving ample opportunity to cross the t’s with abundant atmosphere. It may not be the ride of your life, but Noir is at bare minimum the attempted hitchhike of your youth.

Why, you might even want to read Noir in a book club with your friends, and then orchestrate a moment that echoes a line from the text where:

“…everyone looks up like rats caught in a spotlight eating the brains of a friend dead in a trap.”

Of course, you might choose not to eat your friends’ brains.

So, as pleasant breaks from reality go, Noir is an excellent choice. Perhaps you could even explore Moore’s other writings, all steeped in the same blend of hilarity and repartee, not to mention jocularity. Like a fine Earl Grey tea. Tee hee.

In a Lonely Place

This is the city. Late 1940s Los Angeles. The war has been won and the economy is booming, but something sinister is prowling the foggy streets of the city at night. Women are being murdered and their lifeless bodies abandoned in seemingly random locations. The police are unable to find a pattern or a motive. Panic and fear permeates the streets.

If this sounds like a standard noir plot from the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett you would be right. The difference here is that this tale is written by the little known, but much regarded Dorothy B. Hughes. In a Lonely Place, written in 1947 and reissued here in the NYRB Classics series, is as entertaining as it is subversive. Hughes works within the noir genre to expose its own dark underbelly: the genre’s disturbing attitude towards its female characters.

Most of the novel is from the perspective of the killer, Dix Steele (a noir name if there ever was one). Recently back from the war and living off a stipend from a rich uncle, he wanders the city streets claiming he is a writer of detective fiction. Underneath this suave facade, he feels entitled to an easy life and is enraged by those he sees denying him, primarily women. There is Laurel Gray, the cynical aspiring actress who lives next door and Sylvia Nicolai, the wife of his best friend during the war. Sylvia is married to Dix’s old war buddy, who just happens to be a detective investigating the recent string of murders plaguing the city.

Hughes takes these classic noir characters (the femme fatale, the good girl, the detective, and the killer) and uses them to play with the readers expectations. The result is a novel grounded in, but not straightjacketed by, the genre. I won’t give any more of the details away. Just know that this is not a ‘standard’ noir tale in execution or resolution.

Do be warned though, it can take a bit of time to adjust to this excellent work. The prose can be dense and heated, the slang sometimes obtuse, and it is grounded in the mores of its time. That being said, this slim novel is well worth your limited reading time.