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Hard-boiled hilarity – ‘Noir’

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If you were to put together a short list of the consistently funniest authors currently working, Christopher Moore would be on it. Probably near the top. His books are smart and absurd, packed with dynamic characters and engaging storytelling. He has tackled the Bible and Shakespeare. He’s taken on the worlds of both art and science. Vampires and demons and Death, oh my.

With his latest book “Noir” (William Morrow, $27.99), Moore ventures into some new territory. Well, new in a chronological sense anyway. It’s the story of a guy tending bar in San Francisco during the post-WWII years. He’s just trying to get by when he’s swept up into a weird, wild, wide-ranging plot involving secret societies and flying saucers and mysterious government operatives and poisonous snakes and all sorts of strangeness. Oh, and there’s a dame.

There’s always a dame.

Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin is a man with a past. He came to San Francisco in an effort to leave that past behind him … and there may be some folks who are looking to find him. He works at a dive bar called Sal’s, so named after the owner Sal Gabelli. Sal’s a less than savory character who uses his knowledge of Sammy’s situation to take advantage.

But Sammy’s world is sent spinning when a lovely lady shows up at Sal’s one day. Her name is Stilton (like the cheese) and she is everything that Sammy could ever have dreamed of in one sweet, sharp-witted package. He falls hard and fast, even if he’s not sure when or how he’s going to make it work.

It only gets more complicated when Sal saunters in with an Air Force general who has a very odd request; he’s asking for Sammy’s assistance in making a good impression on a secret society of movers and shakers that he would very much like to join. Meanwhile, Sammy’s got his own scheme cooking with Eddie Moo Shoes, his buddy from Chinatown, but that’s hitting a few snags too.

And that’s just the beginning.

As Sammy tries to figure out how to court Stilton, he’s confronted with more and more repercussions inherent to the various plans with which he’s involved. Whispers of weirdness at the general’s home base (located in a small New Mexico town named Roswell). Mysterious men in black suits and sunglasses showing up unannounced. What Sammy comes to realize is this: the truth is bound to come out eventually. About everything.

There’s a wonderful flexibility to Moore’s writing style that makes his work a joy to read. “Noir” is a perfect example of that; he captures the cadences and rhythms of hard-boiled tough-guy writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler while still staying totally committed to his own unique comedic voice. The book exists somewhere in the realm between parody and homage – in a good way. That fluidity captures the attention and imagination far more thoroughly than a more rigid take (in either direction) ever could.

Moore’s knack for seamlessly melding highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities is also on full display here. He has a blade-sharp literary mind, but he’s unafraid to be broad or coarse. He can alternate between biting wit, crass humor and utter absurdity with ease – often in the space of just a few sentences. His fearlessness is just one more reason to celebrate him.

And of course, he’s funny. Really funny. And it’s not just about jokes (although there are plenty of good ones). No, Moore builds his comedic constructions situationally and through deft characterization. Sammy is a classic Moore protagonist, a more or less regular guy thrust into circumstances far outside his purview and forced to deal with a world that he doesn’t necessarily understand. And when that character is wedded to the genre conventions and tropes of noir fiction, well … you’ve got something special.

Another thing that sets Moore apart is the depth and diligence of his research. His commitment to accuracy in the recreation of that era’s San Francisco elevates the proceedings to a degree that can’t be overstated. It might seem odd to say for this kind of book, but there’s a magnificent authenticity to the world that has been created. Obviously, liberties have been taken, but the whole thing feels genuine - no small feat for a comic novel.

There are few writers out there as consistently, concisely funny as Christopher Moore … and none funnier. “Noir” is another top-tier edition to Moore’s bibliography, a hilarious and intelligent genre exploration that captures his energetic and entertaining grasp of both the sublime and the ridiculous.

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