Comic fantasy is Christopher Moore’s stock in trade. His clever novel “Noir” (William Morrow, 339 pages, $27.99) opens in a sleazy bar in San Francisco, full of thugs, mugs and lugs, when in comes a size-eight blonde wearing a size-six dress and heels high enough to give a stripper vertigo. We’re in Raymond Chandler country straight away, but is this sci-fi? Suspicion begins to stir when an Air Force general also turns up, tailed shortly by pairs of men in black suits wearing sunglasses. He’s from Roswell, N.M., and it’s 1947, just when in real life the flying saucer craze was about to take off, fomented by Ray Palmer, the editor of Amazing Stories magazine. Roswell? “Never heard of it,” the bartender says. “No reason you would,” replies the general. “Nothing ever happens there.”
It wouldn’t be Chandler country without a cast of strange characters: Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin, the bartender; Pookie O’Hara, a strongarm cop; Eddie Moo Shoes from Chinatown; Uncle Ho, a snake-wrangler. Even Chandler, however, didn’t see the need to have sections narrated by a black mamba. As for cover-ups, it seems that not only has there been the familiar one about the flying saucer in Roswell, there’s been another about goings-on among the rich and powerful of postwar America—though these are as sad as they are predictable.
In the end the sci-fi content of “Noir” is fairly small, but the exuberance of the Chandler pastiche never flags. The Air Force general, Sammy cracks at one point, has “so many campaign medals on his uniform that it looked like someone was losing as game of maj-jongg on his chest.” It’s not just Chandler either, for there are strong hints of Damon Runyon, author of “Guys and Dolls,” and a lot of lovingly rendered 1947 neighborhood detail.
“Noir” is worth reading just for its similes and metaphors. As Mr. Moore would say himself, he has more angles than his heroine has curves. And she spills out of her sundress, so he tells us—sci-fi buffs will appreciate the allusion to Edgar Rice Burroughs —like the twin moons of Barsoom. Not serious, but fun.