That bestselling novelist Christopher Moore’s page-turner “Noir” opens with discovery of a dead body and wraps its prologue with foreboding mention of a blonde — “the dirty kind” — is de rigeur in a mystery set in 1947 San Francisco. That said corpse is leaking blood alongside an empty crate labeled “DANGER!” and that irreverent protagonist Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin nicknames the whiskey-chugging dame “the Cheese” signals Moore has not only aced his genre homework, but also that he has constructed another screwball milieu for readers where wisecracks stack up like fedora-hatted stiffs in a Bogie flick.
That’s before low-rent mobsters, clueless feds, midday drunks, and wannabe entrepreneurs hawking aphrodisiac snake urine fill the frame — and before Sammy catches a lipless, frog-like “moonman” trying to motorboat his girl.
“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 shimmy onto a barstool with her back to the door.”
“There’s gotta be some weird thing,” the Bay Area author acknowledges, some off-ramp adventuring in all of his books that makes the fantasy, romance or mystery his. With “Noir,” he cuts the titular genre’s mandatory shadows with blasts of light — “I guess I’ve written a hopeful noir story,” he says, chuckling — and an unabashed love of the absurd.
That enlivens Moore’s atmospheric evocations of San Francisco’s Chinatown, North Beach and Tenderloin communities. His imagery is so vivid, and his language so true to the tough guys-and-dolls vernacular of 1930s and ’40s street hustler movies and pulp fiction, that at any moment you halfway expect to see Bogie — or Bob Hoskins and Jessica Rabbit — pop around a five-and-dime corner or onto a streetcar alongside Sammy and the Cheese. Moore acknowledges he has “a lot of fun” playing with marine-layered metaphors.
“Living in the city, I have a sense of moments and what it’s like when it’s foggy and there’s a streetlight there. A lot of light gets to the street in San Francisco and there are a lot of vistas, so you can see the city. It was fun to write about the different places you can be in the city and what it would look like, including walking through the fog at dusk on Third Street, which was sort of Skid Row at that point.”
Visualizing and researching San Francisco in 1947 birthed the idea of “Noir”; characters were then created “to fill that spot that has to be filled in a noir” in the tradition of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. Gritty depictions of prejudices against African-American shipyard laborers, closeted lesbians, and ostracized Chinese nightclub performers costumed as Anglos prompted an unusual trigger warning at the front of the book. As a writer, Moore says the biggest challenge in navigating that era’s unenlightened bigotry was “trying to convey it without putting too much of an overarching anachronistic lens over it. It’s like if you’re doing cultural anthropology: you have to look at the phenomenon of that culture from the point of view of that culture. You can’t look at it through a lens of trying to make it politically correct in 2018; it’s not going to work as a piece of comedy and drama.”
Interestingly, the racist Pookie, who could be read as parody, is based on a 270-pound officer named Poopsie memorialized by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen as “a cop who tried to beat the Tenderloin white.”
“He showed up in court with so many people with head injuries that a judge said, ‘Could you bring somebody in here occasionally that’s not wearing a turban?’” Moore recounts. “Meaning bandages. Those were real things.”
As with previous titles like 1992’s “Practical Demonkeeping” and 2014’s “The Serpent of Venice,” Moore addresses big themes with laugh-out-loud humor, a swiftly paced plot and crackling dialogue. He estimates 90 percent of his comic timing grew from observing standup comics like George Carlin, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. “I had to teach myself how to put it on the page,” he says, “but I’ve never done it myself.”
Too bad. In conversation he is as quick-witted as gimpy bartender Sammy, whose secret makes him less than a hero even as awakening conscience injects contemporary tones into his rousing warning to a Bohemian Grove-patronizing villain:
“You guys, you movers and shakers, who tell other people what to do. The worst thing you can think of happening to you is maybe you lose some money, maybe you’re embarrassed. Things are different when you live closer to the bone … Things go wrong where I live, real people get hurt, real people lose their friends, lose their jobs, lose their lives — end up turning tricks or rotting from the inside down at the Third Street Sherry Society.”
“Thank God I finished this book before the election, because I don’t think I would have been able to write comedy,” Moore says, only half-joking. On Twitter he indulges his political humor, but “Noir” exemplifies his preference as a novelist for speaking truth to power “painlessly.” Politics has a short shelf life in a novel, he says, noting that all of his books have remained in print for 27 years.
“I think it’s my job to give people some respite. My first obligation is to entertain people and engage them … There’s an overarching theme to ethics and righteousness that you can write in any period of time — this sounds so elevated for a guy who writes snake jokes [laughs] — but if you’re writing truth as a subtext, it’s going to apply to whatever time you’re in.”
Christopher Moore discusses and signs “Noir” at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 3, at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; free admission. Info: (626) 449-5320. chrismoore.com, vromansbookstore.com