When author Christopher Moore began doing research on 1947 San Francisco - the setting of his brand new novel “Noir” - he consulted an information source that might not have occurred to any other bestselling writer of raunchy, outrageous, comic fantasies with tinges of horror and plenty of heart.
Moore studied the columns of legendary newspaperman Herb Caen, who wrote for decades for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I was very lucky that he published two books of his columns in the year 1947,” says Moore, who will be talking about the new book this Friday at Copperfield’s in Petaluma. “Herb Caen had a really nice view of what the City looked like and sounded like at that time, and what was going on and who was around,” he says. “So historically, that’s where most of my research was. And stylistically, my work research was basically just rereading a lot of those noir writers from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that I had read when I was younger. And of course, I watched a lot of old movies, because the book is really written more in the diction that you find in old movies, and a lot of old cartoons, which tended to be a bit more ridiculous that you found in the noir books that inspired them.”
By example, consider the opening line in Chapter One of “Noir,” a book that fuses hardboiled late-night detective work with dead bodies, hard drink, poisonous snakes, and a possible government conspiracy having to do with Roswell, New Mexico. It begins like this:
“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 man in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it as they watch her wiggle in the door and shimmy onto a barstool with her back to the door.”
That’s a style that any fan of Film Noir would recognize as reminiscent of the great old noir movies starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Mitchum. Though as Moore points out, such films had significantly more of that “down-and-dirty tough guy talk” than the books that inspired them, works of authors like Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and Dashiell Hammett. To capture that language, Moore read several of those books, and watched plenty of their movies.
“I love ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ especially,” says Moore, speaking on the phone from his home in San Francisco. “And I watched ‘Double Indemnity,’ another one of those classic Top Five noir movies. I didn’t get down into the weeds, though, in terms of trying too hard to be accurate. That’s because my audience, honestly, is not really people who are fans of noir fiction eager to see my take on it.
“They’re people who like what I do, which is kind of weird, and now I’m giving them something a little new with these guys talking in silly tough guy talk. Though obviously, for comic effect, I go way over the top with it.”
Moore says that the idea of writing “Noir” came to him in a roundabout way. He’s recently written a pair of books known as The Chronicles of Pocket the Fool (“Fool” and “The Serpent of Venice”), a raucous pair of profanity-laden outrageousness inspired by the fool character from Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” According to Moore, he was planning on doing another Shakespeare-themed novel — with some sort of bizarre trip to 1947 San Francisco — but his publisher suggested he should take a crack at something entirely different, a “one-off” not connected to any of Moore’s other books and storylines.