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May 12, 2008


Death in the city — Runoff

Once upon a time, there was a mayoral election. One of the candidates was the mayor’s “hand-picked successor.”

Young and handsome, [the candidate] was a political moderate: he was popular with business — particularly the tourist industry — because of his tough stand on the homeless problem, but he still retained the [present mayor's] affinity with labor, including the big unions in city government like the transit workers.

Another candidate

was a firebrand lawyer from the Green Party who was interested in controlling development and improving the lot of the citizenry in San Francisco’s poorer neighborhoods, like the Mission and Hunters Point. His base was built in those neighborhoods, but he had other supporters throughout the more liberal districts like the Haight and the Castro.

But wait! There was a third candidate,

a conservative businessman involved in retail. He had the support of the “downtown” business interests, including banking and real estate, and was popular in the predominately Chinese neighborhoods of the city, like Chinatown, Sunset, Richmond, and Visitacion Valley.

Did you think I was talking about the Newsom-Gonzalez race of 2003?

I’m not. Nor am I Noodling on the News. But someone else is.

The three candidates are characters in Runoff (Bleak House Books, 2007), a whodunnit by San Francisco mystery writer Mark Coggins. The setting is San Francisco, strewn with bodies. Yes, plural. The book has as many violent deaths as the last act of Hamlet. Maybe more. And private investigator/jazz musician August Riordan is responsible for a number of them.

Riordan channels Sam Spade, even to the point of occupying an apartment on the corner of Post and Hyde. His voice sometimes echoes the master detective’s, as in this description of a cheap motel room on Lombard:

He gave me a key for a first-floor room next to the ice maker and the concrete stairwell. Inside was a carpet with the sort of pattern you see when slime mold grows on split pea soup, and several badly done imitations of the paintings of the kids with big eyes. There was also a bed with a sagging mattress that enveloped your butt like gel in a dental mold and a TV with one of the color guns on the fritz. The stains on the ceiling looked worse than most people’s garage floors.

But Riordan is far more free with his fists… and his knife… and his Glock automatic… and a few stray cleavers… than Dashiell Hammett’s “blond Satan” ever was.

The action takes place between the time of an election and the runoff that followed. At issue is whether the preliminary election was rigged. If it was, who did it? How? And why?

The “why” part is easy. The city’s “most precious resource” is real estate — in other words, housing. And two developers stand to profit if their candidate wins. On the Green side, there’s Ralph Wood, head of the Nautilus Housing Development Corporation, commonly known as NHDC. Supporting the incumbent and his successor is Arthur Calder, pro-development head of the San Francisco Home Builders League. The prize: the key to Hunters Point shipyard.

It turns out that the “how” part isn’t much more difficult. Unlike author Mark Coggins, who’s a Silicon Valley veteran, August Riordan is a techno-klutz, unable to program a cellphone. But he has a friend, Chris Duckworth, who knows better. Duckworth’s alter ego is Cassandra, a jazz-singing

Mae West-like medley of swaying hips, heaving bosom and wafting perfume.

But by day, he’s a font of information about “all matters technical.” And Riordan quickly discovers that

electronic voting machines, or more accurately, electronic voting systems and processes, are vulnerable at many points — when the software is being developed and installed, at the precinct when the votes are cast, when the USB drives are collected from the machines, at election headquarters where the votes are tallied. All of those places.

The “who” part of the puzzle is harder to unravel. And more fun. Particularly when you add in Leonora Lee, “The Dragon Lady of Chinatown.” And Tony “Squid Boy” Wu, who studied at Oxford and heads the San Francisco branch of a major Hong Kong gang. And an anarchist who calls himself Roadrunner. An ex-priest named Maurice Salaiz. A rogue backhoe driver known only as Red. You get the picture. It’s the San Francisco we know and love, writ large.

Who did it? And equally important, who won the election? There’s the rub. You’ll have to peruse the pages of Runoff to find out.

On May 4, the Chronicle ran a piece by Eddie Muller on San Francisco mystery writers. This posting is the first in an occasional series on the authors that Muller discusses.

In preparation for the article, Muller interviewed 30 writers, asking them,”Why do you feel this area has attracted, or bred, so many writers?” Mark Coggins replied:

I think San Francisco has served the same function for literary types roaming the country as a lint collector in a dryer. Writers like Twain, Hammett and Kerouac came to San Francisco as much because they’d come as far west as they could go as any other reason. The fact that San Francisco offered more in terms of culture and appreciation of literature and creative endeavors than the typical western city made it possible to stay — or at least stay long enough to write something of lasting significance.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Friday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008