I happened on to William C. Gordon because I found out that Isabel Allende’s husband wrote detective novels (besides being a lawyer, but of course that’s irrelevant and even forgiveable), and she said she’d picked up some inspiration from him for her recent Ripper. She claimed in the same interview I heard that they never shared ideas while they were writing, and I guess I have to take her at her word, though you know how she is with all that South American magical stuff and intuition and all, so–grain of salt.
Gordon plants us in San Francisco in the early sixties. I don’t know why the era struck me as an odd choice. I was there, after all, so why not? But I got used to it quickly. He dresses up the setting with a bar called Camelot–right after Kennedy’s election. Get it? And he gives us as his protagonist a pretty good example of an anti-hero. Samuel Hamilton The son of murdered parents and a Stanford dropout, he did a DUI head-on that badly injured a passenger in the other car and narrowly avoided incarceration (Today, of course, it would have been a different story.) As the book opens, he’s an unsuccessful ad salesman for an unnamed major newspaper (which those of us in the know understand is the San Francisco Chronicle). He’s a drinker, a smoker, a sloppy dresser, and quite an unattractive human being altogether.
The mystery begins with the untimely death of a regular patron of Camelot, a death ruled a suicide and likely to remain thus categorized since the victim had no relatives or known associates. Well. Samuel turns out to be a sympathetic guy who wonders about his drinking buddy’s demise and develops some investigative skills as he searches for answers. He looks up his old lawyer from his DUI days, now an assistant DA, presents some facts and asks for help. Reluctantly, he gets it, and we’re on the trail of a conspiracy that leads not only to the underbelly of the police department but to the back room of Mr. Song’s herb shop on Grant Avenue. That’s where the Chinese Jars come in, and where I’ll leave you, I hope tantalized enough to seek out the book while I go on to King of the Bottom.
This one’s a bit more complex, but every bit as intriguing. Samuel Hamilton’s our guy once again. He’s become a reporter based on his work in the Chinese Jars case, and he’s quit smoking (almost) thanks to a treatment of hypnosis and herbs undergone during that investigation.
The title here refers to the honorary title of an Armenian merchant who deals in the disposal of hazardous waste. He’s found hanging from the archway that leads into his business property in Richmond, across the bay from San Francisco. I thought the trail of the Chinese Jars investigation was twisted, but in King of the Bottom, Gordon leads us all the way back–through Paris no less–to the genocidal massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks pre-WWI. Back to Richmond and the supposed non-communication between Gordon and Allende. This hanging takes place at Point Molate,, which location plays a key role in Ripper. Just saying.
Anyhow, the main investigating team, once again, is made up of Hamilton and his lawyer buddy. And it’s a terrific read with enough sex and brutality to give it an edge, but not so much to put off the prudish or queasy. Good stuff.