Here’s one deserving of icon status in the field. Give this book to the curmudgeons in your life who claim that they don’t like to read historical mysteries.
The real magic to be found in The Golden Gate Murders (2002), by Peter King, is that his protagonist is the true-life early 20th-century author Jack London (The Call of the Wild, White Fang, et al.). King does such a splendid job here that we are treated to two books at once: the biography of a fascinating character and the compelling page-turner of the title mystery.
King’s “Jack London” manifests a young author who was abandoned by the age of 10 and self-educated after his grade-school years. He is a guy who rounded out his teen years as an “oyster pirate” and a prizefighter, but was nonetheless so impassioned by the art and craft of writing that he dedicated himself to it for much of his life.
We meet King’s “Jack” at age 23, in San Francisco, just a few years prior to that metropolis’ great earthquake and fire of 1906. By that point, the youthful author already has a number of years of itinerant work behind him, and his sense of concern over his capacity to over-drink adds to his value as an engagingly complex protagonist.
King is not hindered by the smaller bygone world of his historical setting; he plays out a plot line for today’s sensibilities by creating the central threat of immense social impact that carries the story far beyond mere whodunit complexities. Then he leads the reader on a journey of sudden dead bodies, vague clues, and an overarching source of danger that imperils everyone in the city, possibly the entire country. He does all this while occupying the skull of “Jack London” so well that it naturally imparts a desire to read or re-read the late author’s work.
After all, the real Jack London was among the first few early American writers to commercially follow Mark Twain and earn a good living at his trade. London eventually found a rush of success that allowed him to sail the world with his second wife and happily drink to his heart’s content. Alcohol eventually took a toll upon his body and his talent, leaving most of his later work as evidence of a man grinding out potboilers to keep the checks coming. But in his younger writing days, the search for thrilling story worlds and muscular turns of phrase were always at the top of his compass. He lived and wrote with an abiding passion for a whole range of interests with a common element that always concerned the struggle of individual will set against backgrounds of daunting physical threat and emotional isolation. After an early adulthood spent wandering the Canadian North and the American West while laboring at a variety of hardscrabble survival jobs, and a middle age blunted by money and alcohol, he managed to pick up a grocery list of exotic maladies--all the while becoming personally and professionally enamored with socialism as a political cause. Photographs of London in his late 30s show a face already puffed by alcohol, presaging his untimely death from kidney disease at the tender age of 40.
And yet in The Golden Gate Murders, King makes no attempt to artificially rehabilitate London’s persona. He simply moves his “Jack” through the constant threats and challenges of the story as a classic hero--one who is possessed of such an unbending sense of courage under fire and acuity in the face of deception, that references to his alcohol do nothing to lower the reader’s admiration for the character or the man.
Much of the story plays out in early San Francisco’s famed Barbary Coast waterfront district amid an atmosphere of partially restrained anarchy. King brings the gambling halls, casino theaters, squalid saloons, and ubiquitous whorehouses to teeming life even while employing the same sorts of characters who have been rendered into cartoon stereotypes with overuse (the saloon girls, the tough bar owners, the murderous crooks). In his hands these supporting players become unique again, only seeming familiar when we recognize and perhaps identify with the humanity in their actions.
For example, this story’s female love interest plays a relatively small part in the plot line, but she is clearly drawn as a strong and smart female who runs her own business and is the master of her own life. She and “Jack” are only occasional lovers, and there is no way of telling whether that situation is his idea or hers.
King generally avoids writing his dialogue in the period vernacular and gives most of the lines a standard English turn of phrase. Instead, he differentiates the characters (including former western lawman Wyatt Earp) via their choices of words and their manner of phrasing, or by the force of energy behind their speech. Their lines combine blunt statements of crass intention with artful verbal wiles that manipulate and mislead. It all comes across in a conversational manner that keeps the reader inside of the scene.
This book (the last of three Jack London mysteries King wrote) is, in short, one that deserves a top spot on the reading list of any fan of historical mysteries--262 pages of manna from the mass-market paperback section. Pity the suffering traveler crammed into the coach section with nothing to do but attempt to synchronize his breathing with the two fat guys on either side of his seat, when he might have otherwise had the foresight to bring along a copy of The Golden Gate Murders and thus while away the hours watching Peter King bring Jack London to life in a true barn-burner of a mystery.
* * *Next Friday’s “forgotten book” selection will be made by Mary Reed, who, with her husband, Eric Mayer, writes the excellent John the Eunuch historical mystery series. Reed is also the creator and editor of The Maywrite Library, an index of classic crime fiction available at no cost on the Web.