Murder, Class and Late-Capitalism in the Tenderloin


A Portrait in the Tenderloin, a new mystery from the small press publisher Ithuriel’s Spear, is writer John Goins’ first novel. Set in the underbelly of late 2003 San Francisco, Goines’ story puts Bill Haywood, an African-American reporter for a community paper in the city’s tough Tenderloin neighborhood, on a quest to solve the murder of his schizophrenic brother. Said sibling, a street character with substance abuse problems, was working on a wall mural when he was offed for unknown reasons. Goins spent time writing for a community paper much like the one his hero toils for, and the writer clearly knows his turf well.

It’s not for nothing that the book’s main character bears the name of heroic IWW labor activist Big Bill Haywood. Goins uses his novel to comment on avaricious tendencies of late-capitalist society and the challenges faced by anyone who tries to live with a strong moral code in the face of non-stop financial pressures. It accurately depicts San Francisco as a startlingly two-tiered burg with a yawning gap between rich and poor, its relentless gentrification metastasizing fantastic wealth next to dire poverty. Goins describes Market Street on a Sunday is an idyllic, tourist-friendly spot for jogging and strolling toward a Marin-bound ferry from the Embarcadero; “All very nice, but walk down the wrong street and you are quickly brought back to reality—bums sleeping on the sidewalk, junkies, the expensive car of a drug dealer holding up traffic.”

Protagonist Haywood follows an idiosyncratic trajectory that puts him at odds with everyone from the building employees at the apartment where his brother sometimes lived to the SFPD and various bureaucrats and community pillars. Through twists and turns the narrative takes us on a wild ride through a seamy side of town too often ignored in most Bay Area writing. Though not a private eye, in his own way Haywood operates in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, trying to live like a mensch in a rotten world filled with rewards for non-mensch behavior. Like Marlowe and Archer, he’s also a bit of a loner, a tendency exacerbated by being a black man in a well to do, largely white neighborhood. In the vicinity of his apartment the only people who make him feel at home are the Chinese couple he rents his room from.

Some of the women he encounters do not wish him well, one being an outright femme fatale. But there is also one sympathetic young woman who brings out Haywood’s chivalrous side and makes him an even more appealing character.

The story is set near the beginning of the George W. Bush Administration’s Iraq war, and Goins’ social critique extends beyond the forces of greed driving San Francisco’s poor “minority” populations out of the city. For example: “He was an enigma to me. I had no frame of reference for people whose sole purpose in life was getting over on other folks. But then, the whole country was an enigma to me. Was he any different from rich people, bankers and stockbrokers who robbed us blind? Wasn’t our whole empire predicated on stealing from others?”

The book’s cultural references are organic to its compelling narrative and character development; they never feel tacked on or showy in the way of some pretentious reads (hello Robert Parker!). Haywood’s familiarity with medieval Japanese poetry and Kurosawa films makes him interesting, not pompous.

The novel’s editor Francesca Rosa told me that A Portrait in the Tenderloin “was the perfect book to inaugurate” the new mystery series of Ithuriel’s Spear. Rosa emailed me that “In a different literary climate, John Goins would have been snapped up by a major publisher, be we were lucky enough to snag his manuscript.”

Given its emphasis on left politics and a class analysis that never slips into dogmatic preachiness, this novel demonstrates the importance of fiction that too often gets pigeonholed as “genre” work. This ghettoizing allows highbrow talking heads to imply that such fiction is of less intrinsic merit than products of high culture. But it is certainly reasonable to argue that poor people who never get near the Iowa Writers Workshop or its privileged alumni also deserve to have their voices heard.

Ben Terrall is a writer living in San Francisco. 


Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
October 9-11, 2015
David Price – Roberto J. González
The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan
Gary Leupp
The Six Most Disastrous Interventions of the 21st  Century
Mike Whitney
Putin’s “Endgame” in Syria
Jason Hribal
The Tilikum Effect and the Downfall of SeaWorld
Paul Street
Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism
Andrew Levine
In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game
Louis Proyect
The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita
John Feffer
Mouths Wide Shut: Obama’s War on Whistleblowers
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000
Brian Cloughley
Hospital Slaughter and the US/NATO Propaganda Machine
John Walsh
For Vietnam: Artemisinin From China, Agent Orange From America
Robert Fantina
Canadian Universities vs. Israeli Apartheid
Paul Craig Roberts
The Impulsiveness of US Power
Philippe Marlière
Class Struggle at Air France
Binoy Kampmark
Waiting in Vain for Moderation: Syria, Russia and Washington’s Problem
Paul Edwards
Empire of Disaster
Margaret Knapke
These Salvadoran Women Went to Prison for Suffering Miscarriages
Cesar Chelala
The Perverse Rise of Killer Robots
Halyna Mokrushyna
On Ukraine’s ‘Incorrect’ Past
Walter Brasch
Mass Murders are Good for Business
William Hadfield
Sophistry Rising: the Refugee Debate in Germany
Christopher Brauchli
Why the NRA Profits From Mass Shootings
Pete Dolack
There is Still Time to Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Andre Vltchek
Stop Millions of Western Immigrants!
Dave Lindorff
America’s Latest War Crime
Ann Garrison
Sankarist Spirit Resurges in Burkina Faso
Cesar Chelala
The Perverse Rise of Killer Robots
Franklin Lamb
Official Investigation Needed After Afghan Hospital Bombing
Linn Washington Jr.
Wrongs In Wine-Land
Charles R. Larson
Prelude to the Spanish Civil War: Eduard Mendoza’s “An Englishman in Madrid”
October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?
Ben Debney
Guns, Trump and Mental Illness
Pepe Escobar
The NATO-Russia Face Off in Syria
Yoav Litvin
Israeli Occupation for Dummies
Lawrence Davidson
Deep Poverty in America: the On-Going Tradition of Not Caring
Thomas Knapp
War Party’s New Line: Vladimir Putin is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Brandon Jordan
Sowing the Seeds of War in Uruguay
Binoy Kampmark
Imperilled by Unfree Trade: the TPP on Environment and Labor
John McMurtry
The Canadian Elections: Cover-Up and Steal (Again)
Anthony Papa
Coming Home: an Open Letter to 6,000 Soon-to-be-Released Drug War Prisoners From an Ex-Con
Ramzy Baroud
Listen to Syrians: The Media Jackals and the People’s Narrative
Norman Pollack
Heart of Darkness: A Two-Way Street
Gilbert Mercier
Will Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite Militias Defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq?
John Stanton
Vietnam 2.0 and California Dreamin’ in Ukraine
William John Cox
The Pornography of Hatred