- Books, Reading, Writing

On the Trail of Robert Coover’s Noir: A Novel

By Geoffrey Green


In the mail one day, I encountered the book––Noir, by Robert Coover. I placed it on my pile of books to read immediately, but very soon thereafter, an odd and suspicious package arrived at my doorstep. After examining it to reassure myself it was no bomb (one never knows the reaction we writers face!), I opened it immediately and encountered the following missive, which I append in full, except for the beginning, which apparently was missing:

That evening, there was a knock at my door. I put down the drink I was studying, and answered it. A neat little twist in some sort of blue uniform shoved the thing in my hands. “No need to sign for it, sir,” and she was off. I liked watching the back of her walk––I just wish I could have seen the front of her return, since she wore dark glasses, with blonde curly hair wisping out the corners of her cap, and the cadence of her steps writhing to a jackhammer beat. I thought to call her back for some reason, but she was gone.

I tore open the parcel, no return address, and saw it contained a bunch of pages. A job offer? A love letter? I returned to the probing of my drink––it needed freshening, so I obliged­––along with the manuscript. My name’s Noir, P. Marlowe Noir is my moniker, to be precise, and gumshoeing is my line. I run a detective service (sleuthing, if you want to get fancy), but on a shoestring: my clients want the facts, and only the facts, the bareboned, boiled down distillate of the answer to their problem. No fancy stuff, no malarkey, no padding. To give them what they want, I work solo––no secretary, no flummery, no poofy office frills. I charge twenty-five greenbacks. Plus expenses. If my clients need a drink, I’ve got rye in the office, but they get it in a dirty glass. You get the picture. Nothing prissy, nothing cute, the real McCoy, in a nutshell.

You can picture my reaction when I started to read the pages. A mouthful of good hooch spluttered out my mouth in shock and annoyance. I wanted to tear up the pages, soil them in the foulest way, and then burn them. But I’m a private dick, and our need to snoop goes deep in the gut. So I added a skosh more liquid courage. Why the hell not? I’m in my office, closet more like it, and I do what I want. The thing that really picked me up is the name of the detective: Philip M. Noir! You got it, a straight case of rip-off. A crime, in fact. I’m the only descendant of Philip Marlowe, on the mother’s side, obviously, and this clown’s pet name was a theft of my property, a cheap, sleazy lowlife trick. The “M.” was meant for “Marlowe” and it’s obvious to anyone. So this sham copper is filching my identity, my reputation, my occupation, my street rep.

The whole deal was hinky, complete through and through. When I write my stuff, as you can see, I write in my own name––first person, this slick dame spinster schoolmarm I was putting the moves on one night in a gin joint told me it was called––I, me, P. Marlowe Noir. But this miscreant of a tale is related in some garbled and debauched language. If “I” is first person, according to the governess, then this must be second person, but if you ask me for the real jake, I would use a higher number lower down the list. “You” do this, “you” do that: prudish popinjay lingo, the stuff you find in a fancy book, the kind I make it a point never to read. At my rates, time is money, and money buys juice. I prefer rye, but if it works, I’m there, whatever the poison. So this hinky peacock is “you-ing” all over the place: “You are at the morgue. Where the light is weird. Shadowless, but like a negative, as though the light itself were shadow turned inside out” (9). What the beejesus? Now I’ve been in my share of morgues, but how do you figure a “shadow turned inside out”? The fraud puts on his trenchcoat, but the pockets are torn. That’s right! How in the hell can a hawkshaw use a coat with ripped pockets? It’s criminal! I would lose my stash, my rod, my flask, my roll, my nose rag, my creds.

Here’s how the sham Noir describes the lingo of his client, a dowager chippie: “I was only sixteen years old and penniless and all alone in the world when I arrived here in the city. I was, as you can imagine, utterly bereft and desolate, overwhelmed by grief and despair, and facing the hard realities of poverty and loneliness with fear in my heart” (14). Who talks like that? No janey I know, and if she did, I’d hightail away from her in a flash––or as close to one as I could manage with a snoot full of sauce in me. And then the floozy winds up dead, almost as soon as she hires this bozo. Meanwhile, the guy jots down stuff like: “It’s kind of entombment, but you feel at home here, trapped in some nameless dark corner of the world and no way out, burrowing through a black night, not knowing where you’re going or why, but somehow impelled to get there, the condition you were born to” (113-144). I repeat for all you lip readers: who talks like that? No one but a flimflammer, a trickster who likes to make things up. Maybe if I had a gal Friday like this piece of humbug, I could ask her for her two cents plain. But I don’t, so I won’t, ’cause I can’t. I needed help, in a hurry. So I had to seek out an ace, someone who travels in these highfalutin lingos. I knew just the one: a wine maven, but closer to a wino, I’d say. His dump is full of books, records, victrolas of every sort, musical contraptions, and prissed up dusty bottles of old vinegar. I made like a banana and split, over to see the wizard, a real lit buff.

This weirdo, who was known as the “professor,” based on whatever dung he happened to be slinging, had helped me before––“consulted” would be the word he would use, but plain advice is always what I need, from an ace in whatever the racket. He lived in a godforsaken dump, but he opened the door for me, despite the late hour. Inside, his digs were filled with piles of books, papers, notes, empty wine bottles, corks, rancid pulps, and scandal sheets of various kinds. He pointed to a lumpy sofa, so I planted myself. This hotshot, “artiste” is what he would call himself––ha!, wore an old, seedy moth-eaten sweater, and lumpy trousers that had seen better days. Under his strange lid, I knew him to be bald on top, but I doubt he wore it for warmth: the place was so sizzling hot, I thought I might blister. As soon as it was safe, I doffed fedora, trenchcoat, jacket, and loosened my best dirty necktie. “So, Mister Noir,” the ‘professor’ offered, “what can I do you for?” The pundit fancied himself an old hand at weird expressions and phrases. But I needed him, so who was I to quibble?

“Well, Doc,” I began, “I need your moxie to help me make sense of this gibberish letter delivered to me earlier tonight. I’m no pro at this stuff, but you’re a real connoisseur of fancy books, codes, and puzzles.” (I thought I should butter him up, since I would probably stiff him for any fee he might ask; he’d forget it happened after a while, he always did.)

“Will you imbibe with me?” He gestured to a used wine glass, and a half-empty bottle of vino. To humor him, I nodded. He poured something purplish-brown into the glass, and I quaffed it in a gulp. He jumped out of his chair! “Good God, man, do you realize you just guzzled a full glass of Romanée-Conti ’29?”

“Whatever you say, Doc,” I quipped. “It tasted like stale grape juice. Got anything for a legit whiff? A snifter of something strong?”

“You didn’t just swallow sneaky pete, you cretin! All right, I’ll get you something that will speak your lingo.” He poked around among some piles of junk and poured me a tall one from a filthy bottle: whatever it was, it soused me right up. I leaned back and went into my spiel.

“Here’s the poop, Prof,” I began. “This parcel was delivered by a swell package herself––a messenger server who was a real dish. I can’t make heads or tails of it. But I doubt it’s legit. It can’t be on the up-and-up. From where I sit, whatever knucklehead inked it was trying to pass himself off as me. If I could, I’d erase the nimrod. Can you shed me some light, whiz kid? There’s lettuce in it for you, on my mother’s honor.” (I had my fingers crossed.)

“I need a little time, sir. You’re no bright bulb yourself, but surely you can understand that. I tell you what: take your leathers around the corner to Whiskey Johnny’s––he’ll still be open, and they serve your line of strong swill. Have a few there, and I should have something for you. You’ll have to leave it with me, I’m afraid.”

I took a powder down to the joint, made myself cozy, and had a few doubles, more than a few. I don’t mind saying I was nervy as a drenched cat. I needed to get skunked. The dump was smoky, dark, and seedy: just the way I like it. I settled back and studied some snorts. I felt steadier, after a while. When Whiskey Johnny came around for his clams, I told him, “You know the professor around the corner? He said this goes on his tab.”

“No dice, deadbeat. His credit’s worthless around here. Cough up the do-re-mi, on the double.”

I reached down deep and managed to locate some crumbled bills I was saving to impress some cookie I might run into. But they would have to get me out of this spot I was in. When I got back to the prof’s digs, it was late, I knew, but I figured the reading would wiggle his ears, get him revved up. Just as I thought, he was smiling, really jazzed up about the pages he had read.

“You see, Noir, your problem is you take things too personally. This whole business with impersonating your identity: it’s obviously meant to rile you up and exasperate you…on the surface. But upon close perusal, there is much more here than meets the eye. Yes, it’s very intriguing. Did it ever occur to you that the name “Philip M. Noir” could be a nom de plume?”

“The hell you say?”

“An assumed characterization, a contrived role.”

“I daresay you were never able to ponder the deliberate profundities scattered through the manuscript? Here’s an example: ‘Trouble with webs. When you’re in one, you can’t see past the next knot. It’s like being trapped in two dimensions, cut off from overviews. Not something achievable from down here, but maybe you can get an underview. Look up destiny’s skirts’ (146). When you get past the pulpy lingo like ‘skirts,’ you realize this is philosophy, metaphysics, in fact.” My lack of reaction told him the whole story of my confusion. “The writer’s only posing as a peeper, a counterfeit Noir, if you will. In truth, the whole thing’s filled with deliberate allusions: to the best pulps, to the flicks that matter, even to literature. The lingo that so annoys you is a parody of the way your lot spout off. But aside from being funny as all hell, there’s a brilliant system at work. Something so richly allusive, it’s exhausting to have to explain it to a jacked-up dolt.”

I took offense, but remembered I needed the guy.

“For a start, let’s take Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon: the widow who’s the phony Noir’s client is a parody of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, even her use of two-bit fake personages instead of her own name (13-14). At the end, when the name of the business changes from ‘Philip M. Noir’ to ‘Blanche et Noir,’ it’s just like Sam Spade changing the name of his business, echoing the Flitcraft anecdote he tells Brigid, whose interest is zilch (15, 192). The fat man in white is the epitome of Casper Gutman and the historical figures recall Gutman’s saga of the Falcon’s history (67-8). Do you see?”

“I don’t get you, Doc.”

“There are references to every tome you can think of. Here’s a few to whet your whistle: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” (41, 50); Hammett’s The Thin Man (70); the man being worked over alludes to Ned Beaumont’s savage beating in Hammett’s The Glass Key (147-48); the business about the insurance policy is a nod to James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity (59), also the dark scheming of the widow is like Phyllis in that same novel (183). The ‘mean streets’ is an allusion to Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Simple Art of Murder’; the girl in the bed is like Carmen in his The Big Sleep. And don’t get me started about the movies: there are references to ones you would know, and ones that probably haven’t even been made yet: the end of Force of Evil (43,152); the tunnel into the sewer system is The Third Man (151) exactly; the ‘sparks’ when the widow ‘uncrossed her legs’ is Basic Instinct all over (15); the severed hand of the pianist Fingers could be any one of several Peter Lorre films––say, Mad Love or The Beast with Five Fingers (85-87); the crazy mirrors reflect the end of The Lady from Shanghai (181-182); the insult ‘you’re a nosy guy, Noir’ is meant to recall Chinatown (45); the club The Shed alludes to D.O.A. and The Fisherman club (107-113)––I could go on and on, but I can see I’m losing you, Noir.”

I had to admit, “I’m beyond lost, Prof, I’m clueless.”

“But that’s the whole point, Noir! There’s genius behind this collage, form to this seeming madness. The whole point is its fictitiousness, its made-up-ness. Consider this passage: ‘I couldn’t be sure what was real and what wasn’t, though in a sense it was all real, because even if I was only imagining it, it was still real, at least in my own mind…’ (163): imagination and reality are equivalents, they blend into each other. Beyond all the noiriness, there’s a brilliant pattern, an artistry even. Sure, you might call it sinister, but I’ve got to admire the brilliant inventive mind that could come up with: ‘if you make a story with gaps in it, people just step in to fill them up, they can’t help themselves’ (188). The key to this whole sordid business is it’s a fib, a deliberate lie, a representation of a misrepresentation. It’s a tale, a yarn, a fabrication, a day-or-nightmare fantasy, a dream of reality, a reality of our dreams and horrors and pratfalls, it’s every memory we could ever have about what we’ve read on the page and watched on the big screen: it’s fabulation of the highest degree….

At this point, I put down the pages. They no longer interested me, no longer absorbed me. It didn’t matter what the professor thought the overall significance of the narrative might be, nor did I care what the doppelgänger Noirs might have to say about who the Mister Big is. I cracked the code, came up with the cryptanalysis, envisioned the trailblazer behind this collage of hilarity, profundity, spoof, and philosophical intertextuality. It could only be he: Mister Big, the exemplary scrivener himself, the craft behind Flitcraft, the art behind the artifice, the supreme perpetrator of this edifice of criminality, of this skullduggery, this stratagem of sinister monstrosity and daring, the Napoleon of fabrication, that mad genius wizard of intoxicating pleasures to whom I drink a toast––Robert Coover!


[All page references are to Robert Coover, Noir: A Novel, New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2010.]


Note: This essay is part of Big Other Folio: Robert Coover.


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