by Mark Coggins
Published by Bleak House Books
302 pages, 2007
The Fix Is In
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
Runoff, Mark Coggins’ fourth novel to feature Bay Area private eye August Riordan, opens with one of the most original action sequences I’ve read. Waiting in his Galaxie 500 on a self-appointed stakeout, Riordan searches for the person or persons responsible for ripping off automated teller machines in downtown San Francisco. By that, I don’t mean they hack into the computer system by punching an obscure code and then wait for the money to flow out like a river. No, this thief is physically removing ATM machines. And not long after Riordan settles in with his copy of Downbeat, the culprit pulls into view behind the controls of a John Deere backhoe in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Michael Mann film. Observes our hero:
This creative set piece and the chase that follows through the streets of Chinatown -- a pursuit both comedic and futile -- sets Runoff apart from any other book that this reviewer has read in the last year, and further establishes author Coggins as a major contributor to the P.I. subgenre.
The attempted apprehension of the ATM bandit, and the ruins that backhoe creates in Chinatown as it flees the neighborhood, put Riordan on the radar screen of the notorious Leonora Lee, more commonly known as the “Dragon Lady,” a powerful business and political presence in Chinatown, whose influence extends deep into all of San Francisco’s halls of power. She summons Riordan to her office, not for the purpose of assessing the backhoe wreckage to one of her buildings, but to hire him to investigate something more damaging and sinister: the alleged fixing of their city’s recent mayoral election. The Dragon Lady’s anointed candidate, the hapless and resolutely bland Alan Chow, was easily the most conservative candidate on the ballot. Chow finished last in a field of three, but captured enough votes to force a runoff between establishment moderate Hunter Lowden and Green Party maverick Mike Padilla. The odds were seriously against Padilla making it into that runoff, and his continued presence in the race is of great concern to Lee. Closely allied with San Francisco’s homeless activists and left-fringe elements, Padilla represents a potentially significant shift in development policy in this city, which boasts California’s most expensive real estate. Lee suspects that the election was rigged, and she hires Riordan to find out if it was true, how it was done, and who’s behind it.
Riordan’s first step is to speak with Election Commissioner Jerry Bowman. After a terse phone conversation, the stubborn gumshoe decides to pop in and visit Bowman, only to discover a letter opener inserted in his neck, his body clutching the cap to a flash drive data storage unit. A subsequent visit to the company that designed the software to run on touch-screen voting machines ends in a bloodbath, after the chief designer goes postal; Riordan is forced to shoot him on the spot, not just to save his own hide, but to protect everyone else in the building. From there, Riordan tangles with Wo Hop Too, the most lethal Asian gang in San Francisco. Wo Hop Too is a proxy for a dangerous crime syndicate located in Hong Kong, led by an Oxford-educated psychopath named Tony “Squid Boy” Wu. (Wu might well be an homage to the unfailingly polite but still quite dangerous villains of Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco, most notably The Maltese Falcon’s Casper Gutman.) And then things get personal when two women in Riordan’s life are attacked -- his secretary, Gretchen, and Lisa Lee, the Dragon Lady’s daughter, in whom Riordan has more than a professional interest.
In the midst of suspense and carnage (author Coggins does not flinch from the violence endemic to gangs, large cities, and powerful business interests), readers are taken on a tour of the San Francisco power structure, full of political warriors (in every sense of that word) who are ready and able to exploit the latest technology in pursuit of their objectives. Those objectives here include providing low-cost housing, a goal that runs counter to business interests more interested in selling million-dollar condos that reach above the bay’s fog. As readers of Domenic Stanberry’s The Big Boom learned last year, real estate in San Francisco is a forceful lever to open up a compelling tale of crime fiction.
Visitors to Mark Coggins’ blog, Riordan’s Desk, know that this author has more than a passing interest in California’s private-eye history. While comparisons between his protagonist and Hammett’s Continental Op can be easily drawn, if for no other reason than the level of violence that suffuses Runoff, Riordan also has more than a trace of Philip Marlowe’s knight errant in him, which would do Raymond Chandler proud. While these tips of the fedora reward those who know and love old-style private eyes, it would be a mistake to think that August Riordan is in any way stuck in the past. Riordan whiles away what spare time he has not by being the quintessential loner in a rundown apartment, but by playing jazz bass on the bandstand of one club or another (my only complaint about Runoff is that we spend less time with Riordan on his gigs than in previous outings), and he quickly, if somewhat reluctantly, comes to terms with the hyper-technical society in which he operates. Private eye aficionados who can’t quite see Lew Archer or his classic brethren operating a cell phone, at the same time as they’re being driven around by a cross-dressing assistant, will be equally baffled by the way in which Riordan untangles the web of deceit involved in rigging modern-day elections.
Riordan and his creator -- who first came to light in “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes,” a story written for the late, lamented New Black Mask magazine, and who have now worked their way into four full-length adventures -- represent the new, 21st-century breed of writers and characters. “What’s happening with the private eye novel?” is a perpetually popular question among the crime-fiction cognoscenti. Runoff is the answer. To borrow a description from the jazz magazine Downbeat, Coggins is Talent Deserving Wider Recognition. | November 2007