By Lewis Faulkner
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Author's web site: www.FaulknerFiction.com
Marketed as "the world's first black and white novel," NOVEL NOIR is retro sf, a noir detective tale cast as science fiction. It's a quick read, with the twists and turns one would expect in a deliberate homage to the great detective fiction (and films) of the Forties. The leads are tough-talking and hardboiled, but instead of a detective as the main character we have Dr. William Raven, a former plastic surgeon who is totally color blind. Hence the tie-in with the marketing ploy. It's clever, and maybe more clever than anything in the book itself.
The time is a post-war future, and the setting is New Berlin, which despite its name feels like an American citypossibly Chicago or New York. Raven has lost his medical license after a botched surgery on Stephanie Lane-Pryor, his former lover who is now married to Sir Hubby Pryor, war hero, renowned actor and one of the wealthiest men in the world.
To make ends meet, Raven ostensibly pushes a broom in a dive, but he also performs clandestine facelifts to keep his skills sharpened. It isn't safehe knows he's being watched, so he keeps moving from town to town, which is how he has ended up in New Berlin.
As the book opens Raven, doing his janitorial duties, is accosted by a mysterious woman. Even though his eyesight is not particularly keen, a result of his unusual color-blindness, he soon realizes that she is almost an exact twin of Stephanie Lane-Pryor. In fact, she wears the same perfume and clothing, and even sounds like her. What she wants from Raven is for him to make her an exact carbon copy of Stephaniedisfigurement and allso that she can take Stephanie's place as Sir Hubby's wife. This of course means that Stephanie will have to "disappear."
In return for this, once she "is" Stephanie, the mystery woman promises to get Raven reinstated as a surgeon.
She even goes so far as to seduce Ravenbecause he retains a deeply buried love for Stephanie, the woman whose face he accidentally ruined. Raven succumbs to the temptation and agrees to throw in with her.
The surgery and murder is to take place aboard a gigantic space liner on which Sir Hubby and his lovely wife will be vacationinga month-long sybaritic swing through the solar system, a sort of space-going Mardi Gras where the rules and laws of Earth's repressed society do not apply. One can even get away with murder. But things go wrong for Raven, and despite his intelligence he is betrayed by his own weakness and his desire to have his old life back.
The usual cast of noirish characters are on display - threatening cops, two-bit gunsels, society dames, the redemptive and innocent female love interest, and Sydney Greenstreet, more or less. The pace is fairly rapid and the writing itself is perfectly adequate and professional. My problem with the book lies in some of the plotting and the set-up.
I'm not quite certain why Faulkner has elected to make his anti-hero, laconic Dr. Raven, color-blind. Raven can't even read street signs without the aid of a small telescope. He is so sensitive to light that he rarely ventures out during the day. Surely, this handicap would prevent him from scoring a medical license, but I don't know enough about medical requirements to be absolutely sure about this. Raven was supposedly able to hide his inability to see colors throughout med school. Well, maybe, but doesn't plastic surgerysurgery in generalrequire the use of very bright lighting in the operating room?
Another thing that bothered me a bit was the use of some of the secondary characters. Early on, Raven has an encounter with a crooked cop, Brannon, who has had tails following Raven around since his arrival in New Berlin. Brannon is a good character, but he never reappears again in the book. Instead, his agent, a musician (!) turned detective named Lizzie Lennon, takes over. Lennon has given up his musical career for reasons never made clear. I question the effectiveness of a public figure like Lennon as a detective. This is just one of a few wrong notes (no pun) struck during the course of the novel.
At a fairly early point in the novel, Faulkner transplants his characters aboard a huge space liner, as I mentioned above. For the life of me I'm unsure why he chose to do thisthe action could have and probably should have taken place on Earth. If the idea was to eliminate certain restrictive day-to-day mores, this could just as easily have been contrived without recourse to a spaceship. (For one thing, the ship as described is clearly enormousit must have cost untold billions of dollars. Where'd the money come from? The resources? The raw materials? This is a post-war society, remember.) In New Orleans during Mardi Gras, for example, all rules are off and there is public lewdness and so on. It would have been easy enoughand more imaginativeto do a little more work on the society in which New Berlin is embedded to provide for a time of year in which the repressed population is allowed to blow off steam while the cops look the other way.
NOVEL NOIR is, as I have said, well paced, with some interesting plot twists, but it's never as relentlessly downbeat as it needs to be. The revelations of corruption and evil do not run as deep as they do in, say Polanski's CHINATOWN, or in any of Patricia Cornwell's grim novels about the Virginia chief medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta. Faulkner has read his Dashiel Hammet, but the world has sunk lower since Hammet's day and we can confidently expect it to descend even further in the future. A good editor would have worked with Faulkner to help realize his vision in a more effective and dramatic manner. Noir can and should have relevancy today. NOVEL NOIR is an affectionate bow to the crime novels of yesteryear, but it may well have its sights set too firmly on the past.
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