Sunday, November 04, 2007

Coggins Takes to the Field

This week we have the pleasure of welcoming San Francisco novelist Mark Coggins, the creator of private eye August Riordan, as The Rap Sheet’s latest guest blogger. He follows in the footsteps of James Ellroy, Megan Abbott, and R.N. “Roger” Morris. That’s rather daunting company, but we have faith that Coggins won’t disappoint.

According to his online bio, Coggins was born in New Mexico in 1957, earned a couple of degrees from California’s Stanford University, went on to work for “a number of Silicon Valley computer and venture capital firms,” and introduced Riordan in a short story (“There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes”) published in the short-lived, 1980s paperback series The New Black Mask. The first book-length appearance of Coggins’ detective and jazz bass player was in The Immortal Game (1999). Riordan has since taken the lead in Vulture Capital (2002) and last year’s enjoyable Candy from Strangers. He’s also the protagonist in Runoff, which is being released this month by Bleak House Books. Describing the plot of Runoff, Coggins writes at his Web site:
“How much does it cost to fix an election?”

August Riordan--private investigator, jazz bass player, smart ass with a foolish heart--is going to find out. He’s been hired by Leonora Lee, the all-powerful “Dragon Lady” of San Francisco’s Chinatown, to investigate the results of the city’s recent mayoral election. It seems the Dragon Lady’s candidate failed to even carry the Chinese precincts, and she’s convinced that someone must have rigged the outcome by hacking the city’s newly installed touch-screen voting machines.

A runoff between the two remaining candidates is days away, but it takes Riordan mere hours to find the Director of Elections dead in his office. A visit to the offices of Columbia Voting Systems--the suppliers of the city’s touch-screen machines--results in another corpse. A wide range of political interests share a stake in the election, so Riordan’s got plenty of suspects.

But when the Dragon Lady’s beautiful daughter is attacked after giving Riordan a goodnight kiss, it starts to get personal. Soon, Riordan is in a race not only against the runoff deadline, but against powerful political movers and shakers, Chinatown gang members, and crazed anarchists, with only his techno-savvy, cross-dressing friend Chris to help.
With the United States heading into what’s likely to be a course-altering presidential race, and with questions having been raised all over the country about the accuracy of electronic voting machines and their potential in voting fraud schemes, Runoff seems particularly timely. Publishers Weekly says of this new novel: “Firmly entrenched in the classic private eye mold of Hammett and Chandler, Coggins exposes the dark underbelly of American politics, but doesn’t stoop to political correctness or mindless carnage.”

Such comparisons with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler must warm Coggins’ heart, for he’s made clear in his blog that he’s fond of, and indebted to both authors. August Riordan has an office in downtown San Francisco’s Flood Building, for instance, because that’s where Hammett worked when he was with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. And Coggins wrote a year ago about making a pilgrimage to Chandler’s old home and ill-kept gravestone in the San Diego area. On his Web site, the author offers a tour of Hammett’s onetime apartment on Post Street, in San Francisco--the same place where P.I. Sam Spade evidently lived in The Maltese Falcon. And this last August, Coggins published a fascinating analysis of Chandler’s revisions to his Edgar-winning 1953 novel, The Long Goodbye.

We’re hoping Mark Coggins will address his interest in both of those crime-fiction heavyweights--and maybe others--during his time here at The Rap Sheet, and that he’ll share with us as well his ruminations about the current place of private eyes in fiction, the difficult balancing act of incorporating politics into mysteries, and his interest in technology-based tales of law breaking. We know already that he’s going to write about the now largely forgotten periodical that bought his first short story, The New Black Mask.

Fortunately, he’ll have plenty of time to explore these subjects. While our guest bloggers in the past have posted for only one day or one week, Coggins will be with us for the whole month. His initial piece will appear on this page later this week.

Welcome aboard, Mark.

(Author photograph by Linda Zhou, Coggins’ wife.)

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