Thursday, August 11, 2011

Joe Gores's Dead Skip: Bay Area History and the Missing Parker Scene

Back to crime fiction (and a wannabe Friday's Forgotten Books entry, a day early). Joe Gores -- crime fiction writer, Edgar winner, Hammett aficionado -- died earlier this year, and I had never read any of his books. I started with his first DKA series book, Dead Skip (1972). DKA stands for Dan Kearny Associates -- a PI agency that repos cars.

At the outset, one of the repo men Bart Heslip gets clocked and put in a coma, and his buddy Larry Ballard investigates. It's a straightforward, procedural-oriented book -- with Ballard chasing down leads, following clues, pounding the pavement, and solving some riddles, along with his boss, the gruff Dan Kearny and his fetching colleague Giselle Marc.

I enjoyed the book, but it really shone in two (subjective) areas for me. First, the book is a great time piece of the San Francisco-Bay Area in the early 70s. We see seedy and fancy parts of San Francisco, and then the book rotates out to the East Bay -- my old stomping grounds. Ballard ends up in the dumpy burbs/burgs of Concord and Martinez, complete with a visit to the decrepit Contra Costa County jail. (I visited this jail a couple of times in the 1980s, but it was a newer version.) We also see a neighborhood gutted and gouged for construction of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), which began service in 1972.

I had this same experience of regional familiarity when reading Plunder Squad, one of the late first-phase Parker heist novels by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark); Parker ends up in Concord and the Oakland hills. In one Dead Skip scene, Kearny knocks on a door -- and a big, mean man comes out to talk with him. Sure enough, it's Parker, set into this book. Gores does a great job capturing Parker's authority and expertise. It's a little gimmicky -- but really works. I felt like I had unexpectedly run into an old friend (a killer and heister, albeit) and found a lost bit of a favorite character.