After reading Pricksongs and Descants last year, I made an immediate decision to acquaint myself more thoroughly with Robert Coover’s work, a resolution I was quick to keep in the new year with the purchase of his most recent novel, Noir. As the title suggests, Noir is Coover’s playful pastiche of the hard-boiled detective genre. (Coover has spoken about “the linguistic and structural fun it offers”). Written in the second person, it casts the reader as Philip M Noir, a private investigator hired by a beautiful but mysterious woman (of course) to track down her husband’s killer (if indeed he was killed).
As you might expect from a writer who has spent years experimenting with language, the novel is pitch perfect in echoing the language of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with Coover also keen to remind us of his fascination with story-telling itself. The opening scene is set in a morgue, one of a number of locations lifted from a by-the-numbers police procedural, where the body of Noir’s client (the widow) has gone missing. Of the ‘stiffs’ he says:
“Their stories have not ended, only their own readings of them.”
This disconnect between stories and the ability to read them (that is, to follow them, to know what’s true and what isn’t, or understand how they connect) is central to the novel, as it is to any mystery:
“She reached under her black veil…and dabbed at her eyes with a white lace handkerchief. Until she did that, you believed her story because you had no reason not to. Now, it seemed as full of holes as her black veil.”
To add to this sense of disorientation (which is, of course, emphasised by the use of the second person), the story is not told in chronological order, with the murdered widow whose body Noir is hunting appearing more than once in his office.
As well as the beautiful damsel in distress, Coover offers us his version of as number of stock noir characters: the police chief, Captain Blue, who naturally dislikes Noir intensely, the night club singer, Flame, the corrupt cop, Snark, the mad homeless woman, Mad Meg, and various criminals with monikers such as Rats, Fingers, the Hammer and Mr Big. Noir also has his dependable but largely taken for granted secretary, Blanche. One of the most amusing recurring scenes in the novel is when Noir turns up at his office after a sustained beating (in an alley, down at the docks…) and Blanche has to remove and wash his clothes. All she can offer him to hide his embarrassment is her underwear:
“…a pair of pink silk panties with little flowers stitched on them. The glossy silk felt good but they were a tight fit and some of your unmentionables hung out…
If anyone asks, I’ll say I’m airing out my haemorrhoids.”
That he also manages to get a tattoo on his rear and bleached pubic hair in the course of the story all adds to the fun (and provides a way of sorting out the chronology).
And just when you think the humour and nudge-nudge wink-wink approach to genre is wearing a little thin, Coover provides an elegant solution (which I will not reveal here):
“It’s funny. While you’re working on a case every outcome seems possible. When it’s over, it’s like nothing could have happened otherwise.”
It is certainly true of Coover’s work that “every outcome seems possible”: that is exactly what makes him such a vibrant and fascinating writer.