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.