When last we saw Sammy Tiffin, he was the central character of Christopher Moore’s 2018 comic mystery-thriller-fantasy Noir which, as the name indicates, was a stab by Moore at writing like Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson.
Alas, as Moore acknowledged in an afterword, what resulted was more like “Damon Runyan meets Bugs Bunny,” something that was “essentially ‘Perky Noir.’ ”
For all its perkiness, Noir, set in 1947 San Francisco, is a moodier book than Moore’s usual wacky novel. Sammy walks with a limp after having his foot crushed in a warehouse accident, and his girlfriend Stilton — whom he calls Cheese and the Cheese behind her back — is a war widow.
He describes her as “sad daffy…but sweet daffy.” And he’s “sad daffy,” too, as are many of the other people in his world, the lower levels and the margins of society in post-war America that’s a place of job shortages, housing shortages and “broken veterans” as well as racial prejudice and sexual exploitation.
Still, despite these veins of sadness, Noir is pretty wacky. As usual in a Moore book, there is a lot of joking about sex and a lot of goofy sex. A lot of off-color descriptions and bantering. A lot of laughs. And the usual odd creatures.
Well, “odd” is sort of understating things.
A Christopher Moore novel always has some sort of otherworldly entity, such as vampires, demons, an Indian god, dragons, Death Merchants, ancient gods, lust lizards and “the stupidest angel,” intruding into everyday life. And the beta-male at the center of the story has to be a hero, even though, as a beta male, he’s supposed to leave that to the quarterback types.
In Noir, there is a talking serpent, named Petey, and a cute alien who’s known as “moonman” and who has a death ray he employs to vaporize some secret government agents who are threatening Sammy and his friends.
The moonman’s back
Well, in Razzmatazz, the moonman’s back, and he’s picked up a nickname, Scooter. And he’s working with Stilton and her friend Myrtle to build something huge in an abandoned war factory that comes to look like a gigantic dragon.
Actually, there are a lot of dragons in Razzmatazz: a dragon that can tunnel deep in the earth, a supernatural dragon in hiding, a stolen dragon statue that a crime lord named Squid Kid — yeah, pretty silly name for a crime lord as Sammy points out more than once — demands to get back or else he will kill the uncle of Sammy’s friend Moo Shoes, the dragon that moonman and the Cheese are building, an ancient dragon that’s been resting up for half a century after a particularly vigorous bout of razzmatazz — that’s the term Sammy and his friends use for “doing it” or “getting it on” or “making love” (and thus a perfect title for a Moore novel with one of his randy beta guys) — and a dragon that talks into the minds of Sammy and others (of course, the moonman does a version of this, too).
As I said, a lot of dragons.
But that’s not all! There are the murders of two lesbians affiliated with drag king bars, and Sammy, almost against his will and over his protestations of incompetence, is hired to find the killer.
There’s the reappearance of a skanky rich lawyer named Alton Stoddard III from Noir, and, this time, there’s his even skankier son Alton Stoddard IV and his willowy girl-liking daughter Olivia Stoddard who goes by the name as Nora and does some lip-locking with the Cheese who is working undercover, so to speak, to help Sammy solve the killings although he’s a little unsettled by the enthusiasm in the Olivia-Stilton clinches.
Elan and affection
Moore writes with great elan and affection for the drag king bars and their owners and patrons.
Elbowed to the edge of “society,” these are his people as are other characters who reappear from Noir, such as Thelonius “Lone” Jones, a huge human being who has a sweet heart and isn’t the most intellectual of people and who, early in Razzmatazz, shows up:
Black fellow in a tuxedo, carrying a top hat under his arm, rushed in the door. Thelonius Jones.
“Oh, Sammy, I’m glad you here. It’s just awful. Just terrible. He dead. Oh, what my gonna do now, he dead!” The big man leaned on the bar, cradled his head in his hands, and began to wail softly, his dump-truck shoulders quaking with a sob.
“Who’s dead, Lone?”
“The president. What my gonna do, Sammy? The president dead.”
Thing is, Lone has always wanted to be a Secret Service agent guarding Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, aside from his relative lack of smarts and sophistication, he was never going to get that job in mid-20th century America as a black man. Sammy and his friends care so much about Lone that they’ve never explained this to him.
And, when two years earlier, Roosevelt died, Sammy and his friends never had the heart to tell him that either, nor had anyone else. Until a songbird at the jazz club where he’s a doorman spilled the beans.
Lone is one of Moore’s people. No question. And so too are his sweet-hearted friends.
The people who aren’t Moore’s people — let me rephrase that: The bad guys in a Moore novel are always the authorities, generally a variety of corrupt and violent men who like to push Moore’s people around.
In Razzmatazz, the worst of the worst is the new head of the vice squad, Captain James Dunne, otherwise known as Dunne the Nun and Mother Superior. He’s cracking down so hard on the lesbian clubs that business has dried up.
However, what appears to be self-righteousness turns out to be something much different.
A softy at heart
The last 50 pages or so of Razzmatazz are chockful of action, as the dragons all arrive at the same place and the Cheese and Sammy solve the murders and Squid Kid gets his recompense.
But the highlight is the sweetest of scenes in which 30 or so golden-hearted whores, including one who puts a dab of Pine Sol behind each ear to have that Christmassy aroma — and their golden-hearted madam make Christmas special for a great many people with physical and intellectual disabilities at a hospital in Sonoma, with a grieving Lone — his mother has died a short time earlier — being rejuvenated as a towering black Santa and, in turn, giving great joy and delight to the many hospital patients.
For all his bawdy talk and for all the shenanigans of his characters on the edges of the law and for all everyone’s randiness in a Christopher Moore novel, even the otherworldly beings — for all of that, Moore is still a softy at heart.
Busting our chops?
At a moment, late in the novel, when much chaos is going on around Sammy and his friends, he asks a question:
I leaned my elbows on the table and held my head in my hands, Shirley Temple-being-cute style, just for a second, I said, “You guys ever think that we are just puppets being pushed around by forces greater than us, who are just busting our chops for their own amusement.”
“Nope,” said Milo.
“Not a chance,” said Moo Shoes.
“Evil Jesus?” asked Lone Jones around a bit of meatloaf. “Nah.”
“Absolutely,” said Rain Dragon in my head.
Well, the bottom line for Razzmatazz as with Moore’s other novels is that, otherworldly beings and forces greater than us be damned, friends watch out for friends. And that’s all the faith you have to have.
As a nurse at the hospital tells Sammy,
“Everyone, no matter their age, or their level of disability, just wants to help.”
That’s totally sappy — and totally wonderful. Thanks, Christopher Moore.
Patrick T. Reardon