Wed 12 Jan 2011
by Bill Pronzini:
● JOE GORES – Dead Skip. Random House, hardcover, 1972. Reprint paperbacks include: Ballantine, 1974; Mysterious Press, 1992.
While holding down a variety of jobs, one of them a stint as a San Francisco private investigator, Joe Gores published numerous (and generally hard-boiled) short stories in the 1950s and 1960s. One of these, “Sweet Vengeance” (Manhunt, July 1964) became the basis for his first novel, the violent suspense thriller A Time of Predators (1969).
Dead Skip is the first of three novels in the DKA File series (which also includes a dozen or so short stories) — a series Ellery Queen called “authentic as a fist in your face.”
DKA stands for Daniel Kearny Associates, a San Francisco investigative firm modeled on the real agency for which Gores once worked. (It was Anthony Boucher who first suggested Gores utilize his PI background as the basis for a fictional series.)
DKA operates out of an old Victorian that used to be a specialty whorehouse, and specializes in the repossessing of cars whose owners have defaulted on loans from banks and automobile dealers.
Kearny, the boss, is tough, uncompromising, but fair; his operatives, each of whom plays an important role in some if not all of the novels and stories, include Larry Ballard (the nominal lead protagonist), Bart Heslip, Patrick Michael O’Bannon, Giselle Marc, and office manager Kathy Onoda.
Dead Skip begins quietly enough, with Bart Heslip (who happens to be black) repossessing a car in San Francisco’s Richmond district and returning it to the DKA offices, where he files his report. But when he leaves he is struck down by an unknown assailant — and the following morning the other members of DKA are confronted with the news that Bart is in a coma in a hospital intensive-care unit, the apparent victim of an accident in a repo’d Jaguar.
Bart’s girlfriend, Corinne Jones, refuses to believe in the “accident” and convinces Ballard that Bart was the victim of violence. In spite of Kearny, who seems more concerned about the cost of the wrecked Jag than about Bart’s welfare (thus causing tension in the ranks), Ballard embarks on a search for Bart’s assailant and an explanation for the attack.
Starting with the files on Bart’s recent repo jobs, he follows a twisting trail that takes him all over San Francisco and to the East Bay; involves him with a number of unusual characters, one of them a rock musician with a group calling itself Assault and Battery; and ends in a macabre confrontation that endangers not only Ballard’s life but that of Giselle Marc, in a house high above the former haven of the flower children, the Haight-Ashbury.
The motivation for the attack on Bart is hardly new to crime fiction, and some of the villain’s other actions are likewise questionably motivated, but these minor flaws shouldn’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of what is otherwise an excellent private-eye procedural. It is, in fact, strong stuff — realistic, powerful, “a traditional American crime novel, out of Black Mask, Hammett and Chandler” (New York Times).
Even better are the other two novels in the series — Final Notice (1973) and Gone, No Forwarding (1978).
● JOE GORES – Hammett. Putnam’s, hardcover, 1975. Reprint paperbacks include: Ballantine, 1976; Perennial Library, 1982.
Gores is a lifelong aficionado and student of the works of Dashiell Hammett, and Hammett’s influence is clearly evident in Gores’s own fiction. Hammett is his personal monument to the man he believes was the greatest of all crime writers — part thriller, part fictionalized history, part biography set in the San Francisco of 1928, “a corrupt city, owned by its politicians, its cops, its district attorney. A city where anything is for sale.”
When an old friend from his Pinkerton days, Vic Atkinson, is murdered after Hammett refuses to help him, the former op-turned-Black Mask writer once again finds himself in the role of detective and man hunter.
But as the dust-jacket blurb says, “During his search through the teeming alleys of Chinatown, through the cathouses and speakeasies and gambling hells of the city, Hammett discovers that the years of writing have dulled his hunter’s instincts, have made him fear death — and that failure to resharpen his long-unused skills as a private detective could end… his life.”
The blurb goes on to say, “[Gores’] dialogue crackles and sparks with the wry, tough humor of the twenties. His characters are thinly disguised portraits of the men and women who shook and shaped this most fascinating of American cities. His plot, drawn from actual events in San Francisco’s corrupt political past, casts harsh light on a stark and bloody era.”
All of which is true enough, at least up to a point. Hammett is considered by some to be Gores’ best book, and in many ways it is. But it also has its share of flaws, among them some overly melodramatic scenes and a disinclination on Gores’ part to even mention Hammett’s left-wing politics.
All things considered, it is certainly a good novel — one that should be read by anyone interested in Hammett, San Francisco circa 1928, and/or fast-action mysteries of the Black Mask school — but it is not the great novel it has occasionally been called.
The 1982 film version produced by Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, is pure claptrap. Frederick Forrest is fine as Hammett, and the script by Ross Thomas is faithful to the novel, but the direction (Wim Wenders) is so arty and stylized that all the grittiness and power is lost. Some of the scenes, in fact, are so bad they’re almost painful to watch.
Gores’ other non-series novels, A Time of Predators (which received an Edgar for Best First Novel of 1969) and Interface (1974), are also excellent.
The latter is one of the toughest, most brutal novels published since the days of Black Mask — so hard boiled that some readers, women especially, find it upsetting. But its power is undeniable; and its surprise ending is both plausible and certain to come as a shock to most readers.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.
JOE GORES, R.I.P. Posted earlier today on Yahoo’s Rara-Avis group was an announcement by publisher Vince Emery of Joe Gores’ death. Quoting briefly:
“Sad news: Joe Gores, one of my favorite authors — and favorite people — passed away Monday, in a hospital in Marin County.
“Joe was a three-time Edgar Award winner, past president of the Mystery Writers of America, and author of my favorite hard-boiled mystery series set in San Francisco, the Daniel Kearny & Associates series, which was based on Joe’s own experiences as a detective and repo man. He was working on a new DKA novel when he died.”
Mr. Gores’ most recent novel was, of course, Spade & Archer (Knopf, 2009), a prequel to The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Quite coincidentally (this is Steve talking) I am halfway through it now, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.