Christopher Moore Goes NOIR

San Francisco, 1947. Bartender Sammy Tiffin falls head-over-heels in love with a beautiful girl named Stilton. Sammy’s boss, the revolting Sal Gabelli, is working on a special project for an Air Force muckety-muck that involves Sammy rounding up wholesome girls and hooking them up with members of the powerful Bohemian Club. Through no fault of Sammy’s, Stilton—or, as Sammy affectionately calls her, the Cheese—winds up in serious danger, and Sammy is prepared to wreak whatever havoc is necessary to save her.

Thus goes the plot of Christopher Moore’s latest novel, Noir. Moore, who has trod through the realms of Shakespeare (Fool, The Serpent of Venice) and brought us the story of Jesus’s BFF, Biff (in Lamb), has turned his attentions to a seedier time and genre. I called him at home in San Francisco just before he embarked on his latest book tour.

 

EUGENIA WILLIAMSON: Noir seems like a departure from your earlier novels.

CHRISTOPHER MOORE: It’s in a different genre, but all the books—no matter what they are—are funny. This one just happened to be in the 40s noir genre, or my take on it. Some of my books are set in Medieval England or turn-of-the-century Paris, and what I’ve gotten over the years is that if you’re a vampire person, you come to my books because of vampires, but you stick around for the French Impressionism. It’s the same me, just a different palate.

 

So why this palate?

I like the language. I’ve written books in the Shakespearean idiom, too, and it’s all because of language. I like playing with language. I’m fond of strange and absurd metaphors, and Noir is full of that. I had fun with the language of real noir fiction—James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett—and the idea of pushing it to the point where those metaphors become silly. The fog being “slutty,” for instance.

 

How much of your language did you glean from books of that era, and how much did you make up?

The novels at that time were censored to be PG-rated. All the movies—which is where I got the lingo from—are PG-rated, or even G-rated. Obviously, I had to make up the profanity, which is something that I’m known for. As I said in the afterword, I wound up with a foul-mouthed Bugs Bunny take on it. I picked up a lot of this stuff as a little kid, and all those Warner Brothers animators were working on the same lot as George Raft and Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson and those other guys making tough-guy movies, so Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck talked like that, and that’s what I was exposed to as a tiny person. Unfortunately—or fortunately—they worked themselves back into this book when I started writing the dialogue.

I did get quite a few of my terms from Damon Runyan [Guys and Dolls], who wrote these dialect stories set in New York in the 30s and 40s, and they’re not really noir—just goofy, comic crime stories. He was very popular in that time, and I had always really liked his work. “Putting a guy in a sack” or “scragging a guy”—those come from him. And there are quite a few glossaries of WW2 slang available online. But most of it is me playing with the language and getting the right rhythms. It doesn’t have to be right, it just has to sound right. There’s no right answer—it just has to be funny.

 

Christopher Moore

I especially liked your scrotal metaphors.

You’d really like my Shakespeare books! I’ve written a lot of books about Shakespeare or the Bible or biology, and I always try to write them so you don’t have to know the source material when you read them. If you come to Noir cold, it still works as comedy.

I did a survey with my Twitter readers, asking them what has to be in a noir story. They said a lot of things: cigarettes and liquor and a dangerous dame and a hopeless ending. As it turns out, all this stuff ended up in Noir, but I didn’t start out with a checklist.

 

So what are your favorite noir stories?

The relationship between Sammy and the Cheese is like the relationship between Bogie and Bacall in To Have and Have Not. She’s the boss of the beach even though she’s 19 and he’s like 40—she just owns the screen—and I wanted the Cheese to have that kind of presence.  They’re both fast-talking smartasses, so you get a bit of the Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn thing, or the Jimmy Cagney/Carole Lombard thing, or William Powell and Myrna Loy from The Thin Man. And Dark Passage, which I mention in the book, was filmed on Telegraph Hill [during the year in which the book was set], so that was an inspiration for the setting.

I read a number of Jim Thompson books, which are so dark and hopeless. I love the stories of Raymond Chandler—“Red Wind” is one that comes to mind for its metaphors, like talking about the Santa Anna winds like the kind of winds that make a housewife eye the back of her husband’s neck like she’s rubbing her thumb across a paring knife. Chandler is probably the most colorful and best of the writers; he’s just pure prose. And Hammett because of San Francisco—Maltese Falcon is a big inspiration for that. But I don’t think the book comes from any specific work, but an amalgam of those things.

And while Noir is more in the tradition of Jim Thompson than Raymond Chandler, I don’t adhere to that hopeless ending. It’s noir with a happy ending!

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About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the former Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist.

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