Just how good can a work of pastiche be? How captivating can a novel be that hews tightly to a course that another writer has well and famously charted? On the evidence of this squat, solid volume—published handsomely by a small California-based press, complete with chapter-opening photographs by the author—the answer to that question would seem to be “pretty darn captivating.” The novel, whose archetype is one part Hammett and two parts Chandler, has a narrative verve and a literary polish that similar works of homage often lack. Hero and narrator August Riordan lives and works in the very same locales where Hammett’s Sam Spade (and Hammett himself) lived and worked, and he exhibits a blend of smark-aleck patter and romantic alienation that closely mimics the persona of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Like those literary forerunners, moreover, he inhabits a world that plausibly combines sordid realism with the free-floating unreality of a fairy tale. Coggins even uses chess, Marlowe’s favorite pastime, as a central plot device. But the author also uses software piracy, the S&M club scene, and other aspects of late-modern San Francisco to update his familiar story of dangerous women and deceitful men. Most appealingly, he uses the city itself to great effect, moving his sad, jazz-playing knight-errant like a chess piece across the fog-hemmed streets of North Beach, Nob Hill, and the Tenderloin.
[ADDENDUM: Just about a month ago, I relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. Long before moving there, though, I harbored a fascination with that region and especially with the magical city at its center, and therefore I sought out works of detective fiction set in those precincts. To mark this move, I will devote my next several posts here to reviews of novels that fall into that category. Some of these works use their Bay Area setting more effectively or more evocatively than others. On that score, this début effort by Coggins (who also maintains a great blog, where he often writes about mystery-related goings-on in and around San Francisco) hits “the top of the mark,” so to speak.]