4 June 2013

Robert Coover: Noir (2010)

Robert Coover's Noir is another genre spoof work in the same vein as his pornography spoof novella Spanking the Maid, although as its title suggests this is a spoof of the detective novel, with an obvious allusion to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: the detective in question is Philip M. Noir.

Noir is a seedy ex-alcoholic private dick (and of course there are plays on that word) who still lapses into drinking binges, particularly when his new client slams a large amount of money on the table for him to search for Mister Big, a mystery man she believes has killed her husband. She's still wearing widow's weeds and Noir doesn't even get a glimpse of her face, although he's mightily impressed by her legs.

The novel, which is considerably longer than the to-get-down-to-the-point Spanking the Maid, unfolds (if that's the right word for a book that leaves so many questions unanswered) through a series of flashbacks, dream sequences and unreliable characters, in which there are many dead bodies and several painful coshes on the head for Noir. The unnamed woman with the lovely legs who supplied Noir's money is murdered and then her body disappears, but Noir still continues his search for Mister Big, encouraged by sexual fantasies of the woman.

Noir endures many dangerous encounters, but throughout the novel the principal constant is the loyalty and intelligence of his secretary Blanche, who picks him up when he's down and without whom Noir would evidently be completely lost. In fact, the reader is strongly aware that, in the narrator's use of the expression 'cherchez la femme', Noir is wasting his time lusting after a dead woman: why is he so blind to Blanche's many qualities?

Finally, this is a postmodernist work and far from all is revealed, although at the end – which some readers can be forgiven for thinking may be part of a dream sequence – the weeping widow is revealed to have faked her own death, and to be none other than Blanche. This is where, for the first time, Noir sees that Blanche has nice legs. Maybe the new firm – Blanche et Noir of course – might just work.

As long as Noir forgets all the questions that remain unanswered, and draws a final curtain on the unknowable past. This novel is probably too clever for its own good.

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