In The Dead Beat Scroll, Mark Coggins’ private detective, August Riordan, returns to San Fransico to find his former partner Chris Duckworth murdered. His search for justice takes him through the city dealing with sugar daddies, a Chinatown gang boss, and an original Jack Kerouac manuscript. Once again, Coggins delivers a great traditional private eye tale using one of the most classic cities that is often at it’s best when it unabashedly leans into the classic tropes. Mark will be joining Heather Harper Ellet and L.A. Chandlar for our Place & Crime Panel at BookPeople on October 28th, but he took a few questions earlier from us about the book, the genre, and the town it takes place.
Scott Montgomery: With August trying to find his partner’s killer and it tied to a rare artifact, how aware were you that you were in the beginning that you were wadding into Maltese Falcon territory?
Mark Coggins: It was a conscious decision to make a hat tip or three to Hammett in general and The Maltese Falcon in particular. Riordan’s apartment has always been the one that Hammett lived in when he wrote the Falcon and the same one that Hammett placed Spade in for the story. In addition, Riordan’s office is in the Flood Building, which is where the Pinkerton Detective agency had its office in the 1920s when Hammett worked there. I never make an explicit reference to the Hammett connections in the books, but they are there for the savvy reader to pick up on if he or she is familiar with Hammett’s San Francisco.
By the way, you can read more about Hammett’s apartment at 891 Post Street in this essay I have on my website.
SM: How difficult a decision was it to kill off one of your main supporting characters in the series?
MC: It was pretty damn difficult. Chris Duckworth was Riordan’s sidekick for five of the seven books, and many readers found his personality and the byplay between Riordan and him to be one of the most entertaining aspects to the novels. Although Riordan and Duckworth are estranged at the time of Duckworth’s death, I hope that Riordan’s regard for Duckworth and the real grief he experiences come across in the book. I found the process of writing the final scene in the novel—which is a celebration of life for Duckworth—to be particularly poignant. I hope some of that poignancy is transmitted in the text.
SM: How did the Kerouac scroll come to you as the MacGuffin?
MC: Jack Kerouac stayed with Neal and Carolyn Cassady at 29 Russell Street on San Francisco’s Russian Hill for six months in 1952. Neal was the model for the character of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s most famous work, On the Road.
In addition to Road, Kerouac worked on the novels Doctor Sax and Visions of Cody during his stay. He lived in the attic, writing on a desk made from a sheet of plywood. In The Beat Generation in San Francisco, Bill Morgan catalogs the other attic furnishings, “There was a bed on the floor and a typewriter, paper, Dexedrine, a radio, bongo drums, and a tape recorder for the new spontaneous prose style he was developing.”
I first learned Kerouac had been on Russian Hill when I lived there myself in the mid-90s. A friend pointed out the Russell Street house on a walk in the neighborhood and related its unique place in San Francisco literary history. Later, after I finished my fourth novel, Runoff, I remembered the house and began to toy with the idea of plotting my next book around another Kerouac scroll that is discovered when the Russell house is demolished.
But fate in the form of a trip to Buenos Aires intervened, and I was inspired to write instead about the bizarre story of Evita Perón’s “afterlife” in my novel, The Big Wake-Up. Next came No Hard Feelings, which sent Riordan away from San Francisco to a kind of exile in a double-wide trailer on the outskirts of Palm Springs.
In contemplating how to bring him back to the City by the Bay, I hit on the idea of Riordan being summoned by his old administrative assistant, Gretchen Sabatini, to help locate Duckworth, who has gone missing after taking on a case involving a murderous polyamorous family. I then decided to resurrect the Kerouac manuscript as the MacGuffin that brings the family to town and threw in the Chinatown gang that Riordan mixed it up with in Runoff for good measure.
SM: One thing that is quintessential about the series is your great use of San Francisco. How much has the town changed since The Immortal Game?
MC: The topography of downtown San Francisco, where a lot of the story takes place, has actually changed very little even from the time of The Maltese Falcon. But in the time since The Immortal Game was published in 1999, the influence of big tech has been the catalyst for some major upheaval, if less topographical than socioeconomic.
Although the namesake of the building is fictionalized in The Dead Beat Scroll, Riordan visits the tallest skyscraper in the city, Salesforce Tower. This was built in 2018 for the cloud computer company of the same name. That’s an example of a “topographical” change. But in addition, Twitter, Google, Facebook, AirBnB and Uber (for example) all have a major presence in the city—often snapping up office space that was previously dedicated to other industries—whereas in 1999 the center of gravity for tech was tilted south, toward the Peninsula cities of Palo Alto and Mountain View.
The socioeconomic impact of this has been to bring a lot of well-paid tech workers into the city and to drive out a lot of the folks in lower paying professions, including teachers, artists and musicians. This has resulted in skyrocketing rents, increased homelessness and an arguably less diverse and culturally rich town.
Even the traffic on the streets has increased considerably. I do a lot of street photography in San Francisco and one day I positioned myself at the top of a downtown parking structure to take photos of the people on the street below. Literally every other car that passed had an Uber or a Lyft sticker on it. They are continually orbiting downtown to pick up passengers. Throw in the private buses that companies like Facebook and Google hire to ferry their workers to and from work, the electric scooters the techies ride for “the last mile” and you’ve got nerd gridlock.
I confess I’m part of the problem because I worked in the tech industry for years.
SM: How did you come to the idea of using a photo of the location that each chapter takes place in?
MC: Originally, I was using photography to document street scenes I wanted to describe in my books. Then I hit upon the idea of including the photos I was taking in the books. Later I began to alter the plot of my books to have an excuse to include photos I liked that I had taken without reference to a particular scene.
SM: What I love about the August Riordan series is that there are throwbacks to the traditional private eye tale. Why is that still a vital genre to you as writer?
MC: I’ve introduced Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton to much younger readers and to a person they have enjoyed them. There’s still something magical and fresh in the writing. And if an acclaimed modern author like Megan Abbott can say this in response to a question I asked her about Chandler:
“I think he will always be my biggest influence in terms of style. The way, to him, mood mattered above all. Sights, scents, colors, pressures in the air, the way sound can travel. The way it can feel like everything around you is part of you, part of your own longing or fear or trepidation. That if you can strike a mood, it’s far more than a mood. It’s a world you’ve given your reader.”
…then I’m certain the genre still has a lot of gas.