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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

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Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something-like truth or beauty, the ineffable-and became over the course of its writing a kind of...

by Robert Coover
Dec 1 2007, 12:00am


Illustration by Jiro Bevis

Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008.


It’s time to face up to Mister Big. But if you find him, tail him, uncover a plot, what? No way to reach the widow, you failed to ask your client for an address or phone number. Your notorious impatience with details. It’s why you need Blanche. Rats told you her name, you paid him for it, but you’ve forgotten it. You phone your pal Snark, your inside feed in Captain Blue’s unit, and ask him to meet you at the Star Diner. The Diner doesn’t have a liquor license, but for those in the know, they keep whiskey in the milk dispenser. Snark is a heavy drinker and usually after five or six mugfuls he starts opening up.

It’s a perfect night. Wind, rain, gloomily overcast, the puddled reflections more luminous than the streetlamps they reflect. Cars and buses crash heedlessly through the puddles, forcing you against the wet buildings and blue-lit window displays. You’re sucking on a fag, hands in your trenchcoat pockets, your posterboy face (your mug glowers darkly on wanted posters throughout the city) hidden behind the upturned collar, thinking about Flame’s betrayal, if it was one, about Blue’s dark machinations, the mysterious widow, her unknown whereabouts, about all the bodies you’ve left in your wake. Your tattoo is itching. You reach back under your coat to scratch it with your middle finger erect, just to let whoever’s behind you know that you know. What’s Blue up to? Maybe he’s in Mister Big’s pocket, the chalk drawing of the alleged corpse part of an elaborate cover-up of a heartless murder. Thus the rush to hide the body. Blue figured he could scare you off the case, underestimating your obstinacy, your restless need to know, and what the widow had come to mean to you. Or was he using that obstinacy for some covert purpose of his own? And is Snark a pal or Blue’s agent, his underling and co-conspirator, sending you off on wild goose chases and setting you up to take the fall for others’ crimes? If so, whose? Blue’s? His and Mister Big’s? But why would the big man want to waste a smalltime ivories tickler like Fingers? Because he sent you to an ice cream parlor? Maybe. Message: Helping Noir is not good for your health. Correspondence by cadaver. Body bulletins. Nothing seems to make sense, but why do you expect it to? Shouldn’t you just take Mister Big’s dream warning to heart and stop trying to figure something out when there is nothing to figure? You glance up at a third-floor window over a drug store where shadows play against a drawn blind. Looks like some guy stabbing a woman. But what can you know? And why (though it will do no good, you stop at a phone booth, call the cops, give them the drugstore address, hang up before they can ask any questions) do you want to? Because the body has to eat and drink so it can stay healthy long enough to enjoy an agonizing death, and the mind, to help out, has to know where the provisions are and how to get them and who else is after them and how to kill them. Then, once it gets started, it can’t stop. Gotta know, gotta know. It’s a genetic malignancy. Ultimately terminal. Your secretary Blanche, who reads the Sunday papers, calls it the drama of cognition, or sometimes the melodrama of cognition, which means it’s a kind of entertainment. Solving crimes as another game to play; conk tickling, not to let it go dead on you. Murder providing a cleaner game than most. You start with something real. A body. Unless someone steals it. Is that what happened? Who would want it? And what for? Blackmail? Or did Rats snatch it to use as a stash bag? Happened on his turf. Is that why he was nabbed? But why that one in particular? There are bodies all over the city. Up over that drugstore, for example. It’s a deranged town. A lot of guns but few brains, as someone has said. Did the widow have one in her little purse? Probably. Nested amid the bankrolls. Did she ever use it? If she had one, she probably used it. Put a heater in someone’s hands and it’s too much fun to pull the trigger and watch your target’s knees buckle. Did she use it on her ex? It’s possible. What isn’t? Taxis pass, their wipers flapping, but they all seem to be driven by guys in leather jackets with goatees and granny glasses. Can’t take risks, not enough time for that, must get to Snark, hoping only it’s not a trap. Blue could be waiting. But you and Snark have done each other enough favors through the years to create a kind of mutual dependency and you figure Snark will want to preserve that. You squeeze the widow’s veil in your pocket for luck, then remember you don’t have it anymore. Must be something else.

But though you’re hurrying along, running against the clock, it seems to take forever. Everything’s stretching out. The blocks are longer somehow, the soaked streets wider and packed bumper to bumper with blaring traffic. You have to double back, take shortcuts that aren’t short. You know the way and you don’t know the way. You find yourself on unfamiliar corners, have to guess which turn to take. Racing across a street at the risk of having your legs severed at the knees by clashing bumpers, you catch a glimpse of the pale blue police building glowing faintly in the wet night. You shouldn’t be able to see it from here, but you do. The city can be like that sometimes. Especially when you’re dead on your feet and in bad need of a drink. Joe the bartender has a story about it which he regaled you with one day over his ginger ale. This was in the afternoon before Happy Hour—what Joe calls feeding time at the zoo—so Loui’s Lounge was quiet. Serene. You were in mourning, not just for the widow, but for Fingers, too, so the atmosphere was right and you had more than one. More than three in fact, who was counting? Joe was not always a teetotaler, and when you asked him why he gave it up, he told you about the night the city turned ugly and nearly did him in. I know you love her, he said. But watch out. She’s big trouble. Flame, as you recall, was rehearsing a song in the background, something about a stonehearted bitch who drives her lovers mad, in which hysteria was made to rhyme with marry ya and bury ya, but later she came over and asked why you two always called the city “she.” Well, we’re guys, said Joe. That’s the way we talk.


This happened a long time ago, back in my fall-down-drunk days. I was living on the street mostly, if you could call it living, working as a bouncer, doorman, dealer, garbage collector, barman, pimp, any way to scramble together enough skins for the dog juice. Sometimes I woke up in a hooker’s bed, sometimes in an abandoned lot or a back alley, bruised and bleeding but with no memory of the punchup, if that was what had happened. Now and then I found myself flying with the snowbirds, but mostly I stuck with the hooch. I was sick a lot of the time but sometimes I felt good, and whenever I felt good I got noisy. Sometimes the cops would take me in as a public nuisance, needing someone to pound on for a while, but usually they let me be, doing nothing worse than push my face into my own vomit, steal my stash, or kick me into the gutter if I was blocking the sidewalk.

It was a shitty life and I began blaming it all on the city. Alkies are like that: everybody’s fault but their own. So whenever I got really juiced, I’d start railing crazily at her, calling her every dirty name I could think of at the top of my voice so everyone would know. She retaliated, seemed to, by moving the streets around. Nothing stayed in the same place, that was my impression. When I was sleeping one off, I could hear the buildings walking around, changing places. I didn’t know where I was most of the time. Of course, I was also completely scorched most of the time, so 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, the only one I’ve got. Which back then I was doing my best to burn to a cinder.

Then one night I stumbled over a loosened manhole cover and fell and skinned my nose and that threw me into a violent rage and I started screaming at her from there, where I was lying. You did that on purpose! I yelled. There were noxious vapors belching out of the hole with the loose cover, so, along with all the other filthy things I called her, I cursed her out as a fucking steaming bottomless cunt, and as soon as I said that, I knew I had the hots for her, and I knew she was hot for me. That sounds crazy, it was crazy, I was crazy, I’ve said that. But I had to have her and I knew she wanted it. It was all I could think about, to the extent that I could think about anything at all. Come and get me, big boy. I seemed to hear her say that. But how do you fuck a city? The only thing I could come up with was to jerk off over a subway entrance, but when I tried to do that it just made her madder. Maybe she felt insulted or demeaned or just not satisfied, but after that she really got vicious. Mean streets? Until then I had no idea. What before had been a kind of subtle sleight of hand became more like an out-of-control merry-go-round. Whenever I stood up, I got knocked down again. The streets and sidewalks buckled and rolled like a storm at sea, pitched me around, reared up, and smacked me in the face. Who knows, maybe I was driving her wild with desire and those were just love commotions of a kind, but they were killing me and I no longer had amorous ambitions. Stroking her while I was down seemed to help, but whenever I tried to stand, she started in on me again. Ever get hit by a runaway building? You don’t want that to happen to you. That’s when I knew I had to get off the sauce. Until the Mob insisted on reinforced steel, Loui used to have a pebbled glass door out there. I got thrown through it. The little fat man took me in and saved my life. Gave me a flop at the back, dried me out. I haven’t stepped outside this place since.

Snark is waiting for you at the Star Diner when you finally find your way there. You get him jawing about his family, station gossip (Blue is suffering a violent case of redhot hemorrhoids and is making life hell for everyone), tips on the horses, and recent crimes, mostly of the gory sort, Snark’s particular métier. Snark has an unusual family. A pair of Siamese twins for kids and a wife who’s a professional contortionist. She is working up a nightclub act with the twins that Snark says he hopes will be big enough to allow him to retire from the force. When he’s tanked enough, Snark will describe all the positions his wife can get into. Snark himself can’t touch his toes, even with his knees bent.

After a few (it is getting ugly, he is talking about the positions the twins can get into), you tell him the widow’s tale and show him the piece of paper.

That’s deep shit, he says, and takes another slug from his mug of whiskey. Outside, an old panhandler with long white hair and beard is pressing his bulbous nose against the window, gazing hauntingly in upon your conversation. You’ve often seen him out there, he is part of the scenery in his old weathered topcoat and rumpled fedora, unwashed gray-black clothing held together with frayed sashweight cord. Hunched shoulders, caved-in chest, his limp beard down to his belt, plastic bags full of dustbin debris, a living piece of the inner city. More or less living. He often has something poetical to say, like I got the city inside me, mister, it’s weighin’ me down and suckin’ up all my brain juice, or I seen a bird today with a broken wing and a cat eat it and a car hit the cat. Who is this broad? Snark asks.

Her name? I don’t know. I learned it and then I unlearned it. You tapped your own whiskey mug in explanation. You realize you’ve spotted your tie with the chili. Not the first time. It’s why you wear patterned ties. Her husband killed himself. Or was killed.

I think I know the case. He drowned himself. With his feet in concrete.

I think it was a shooting.

Well, maybe he drowned himself, and then shot himself. Or vice versa. I’m sure it was him.

What I need to know, Snark, you said, scraping at your tie, is how do I get to Mister Big?

Well, he has a weakness for pedicures.

I don’t do toenails.

Also toy soldiers.

Toy soldiers?

Yeah, they tell me his office walls are lined with glass cases full of them. He dresses up and plays out battles on his billiard table.

Hmm. Any specialty?

Medieval. He digs the Dark Ages.


When Snark leaves, you buy a doughnut dipped in pink sugar and take it out to the old panhandler. He tips his crumpled fedora and, staring up at you with watery blue eyes curtained by long strands of dirty white hair, says: They was a woman had a dog that done tricks. The dog got sick and died and the woman got sick and died. Don’t know which come first. But no one remembers the tricks the dog done. Just me. If you ever need to know, mister, just ask me. He puts the pink doughnut in one of his plastic bags and shuffles away. Is he going to eat the doughnut? Sell it? Bury it? Where is he going? What else is in his bags? On a hunch, you follow him. What were you thinking? That he might reveal something about the city that you didn’t know. Something that would be a kind of clue. On the principle that opposites attract, you think, he might even lead you to Mister Big. Why not. Besides, you’re restless. You’ve slept all day, drunk too much, need to walk it off. Snark is heavy duty.

The old panhandler’s route is a twisty one down bleak abandoned streets, ever narrower, darker, and more labyrinthine. A wind is blowing down them, chasing scraps of rag and newspaper, causing signs and hanging lamps to squeal and sway. Sometimes all you can see are the blown newspapers and the panhandler’s long white hair and beard flowing along in the shadows. There seems no pattern to his wanderings, though he stops at each trashbin and pokes around, so maybe he’s making his nightly rounds. Doing his collections, straightening up the city, he is the only feeble sign of life within it. You’ve been trailing along and no longer know where you are. Doesn’t matter. Though you wish you’d remembered to pack heat, you are at home nowhere and anywhere. And there’s something about these dark nameless streets going nowhere that resonates with your inner being. The desolation. The bitterness. The repugnant underbelly of existence. Well, you’ve eaten too fast. The doughnuts and chili haven’t settled well. As the old fellow stoops over some gutter refuse, you step into a doorway, cup your hands around a struck match, light up. You smell something familiar. And then the lights go out.


The city as bellyache. The urban nightmare as an expression of the vile bleak life of the inner organs. The sinister rumblings of the gut. Why we build cities the way we do. Why we love them the way they are even when they’re dirty. Because they’re dirty. Pissed upon, spat upon. Meaningless and deadly. We can relate to that. Here’s a principle: The body is always sick. Even when it’s well, or thinks it is. Cells are eating cells. It’s all about digestion. Or indigestion. What in the city we call corruption. Eaters eating the eaten. Mostly in the tumultuous dark. It’s a nasty fight to the finish and everybody loses. Cities laid out on grids? The grid’s just an overlay. Like graph paper. The city itself, inside, is all roiling loops and curves. Bubbling with a violent emptiness. You have often pondered this, especially after suppers at the Star Diner. You are pondering it when some semblance of consciousness returns. Pondering is not the word. Your buffeted mind, its shell sapped, is incapable of pondering. It’s more like an imageless dream about pain and the city. Almost imageless. You are being dragged through an old film projector. Your mazy crime-ridden gut is on view somewhere. Your sprocket holes are catching, tearing. Your head is caught in the mechanism. Fade out.


Before you can see anything, you could hear water sloshing lazily against stones like crumpling metal. The dirty spatter of rain, squawk of gulls. You are down at the waterfront. They must have dragged you here. You open one eye. Everything in shades of gray, slick with rain. Could be twilight. Probably dawn. You are lying on your belly on wet rocks and broken concrete under an old iron bridge down in the docklands at dawn. In the rain. Everything hurts. Head feels cracked open. To rise up on one elbow takes a heroic effort, but you are a hero. Your clothes are a mess. But your tie has been laundered.

Captain Blue is sitting on an old truck tire in a police slicker and rain hat, smoking a cigarette. He tosses you the pack. It’s your own. One left. You fumble for matches but they are wet. Blue comes over irritably (you are wasting his time) and lets you light your cigarette off his, then he sits down again. So what are you doing down here, dipshit? he asks. They throw you out of your flophouse?

I had a yearning for the bracing seaside air, you say, and feel your pockets.

You were lucky, Noir. It wasn’t robbery. When we found you, you still had your bankroll.

Oh yeah? Where is it?

I shared it out with the guys. Reward for saving your useless fucked-up life.

What do you mean, saving my life? What did they do?

It’s what they didn’t do. Pretty mean old boys, Noir. Now where did that big roll come from?

Client of mine. At the bottom of an empty pocket, a nearly empty pocket, there’s a wrinkled scrap of paper. The name the widow scribbled out for you. You try to remember that familiar smell you noticed just before they brained you, but your sinuses are clogged now with the odor of dead fish and machine oil.

Don’t bullshit me, scumbag, your clients don’t have that kinda money. What are you up to?

You sigh. Even that hurts. So the sigh is more like a groan. You’ve smoked the cigarette down to the point where it’s burning your lips, and you badly need another. You flick the tiny fag end toward the water where rotting pilings from collapsed wooden docks rear up out of the greasy water like ancient stalagmites, black bones, and say: Collecting for police charity.

I oughta take you over to the station, wiseass, and work you over just for the pleasure of it. But somebody’s already done that for us.

Who do you think that was?

I don’t know. My guess is you’ve picked up a tail.

Is that a guess or inside track?

Educated guess, let’s say. Out in the dead black water, pimpled with rain, rusting barges with angular bent-neck cranes sit like senile old geezers having a mindless bath. You don’t know why you notice such things. You’re a nosy guy, Noir, Blue says, and nosy guys attract the curiosity of other nosy guys.

Crushed beercans. An old shoe. Rusting hubcap. Broken crate slats. Piece of sewer pipe. Bent plastic bottles. Debris of the shore, snuggling in the rocks. Integers. Adding up to nothing. Still, you keep on doing the fucking maths. You stagger to your feet, feeling like shit. Think I’m going to have to change the mattress, you say.

Snark says there’s a woman involved.

Yeah, my mother. She misses me. Take me home to her.

You’ve got a head wound, numbnuts. You should go to hospital and have it treated, get an X-ray.

An X-ray might break it. I’ve got work to do.

Your funeral, chump. I don’t have a free car, he says, but here… He peels a tenspot off the roll in his pocket. I’m feeling flush. I’ll pay for your cab.


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