Along with the photos, tourists — or anyone, really — might find a place for Harrington’s book and Christopher’s Moore’s “Noir.” Besides satisfying twists and reveals and sharply drawn characters, these two thrillers come replete with images of the city by the bay that are gritty and bright, romantic and melancholy.
Consider this panorama from “Last Ferry Home”:
“The Berkeley hills, the distant stark megalopolis called Oakland to the southeast, the Bay creeping along the Marin coastline, the midnight blue sky unifying it all, making it a whole landscape that was part of his DNA.”
And there’s this scene, from “Noir”:
“Sammy could see the loading cranes across the bay in Oakland, and railroad cars loaded with raw materials lined into the distance to the south until they disappeared in the mist.”
Their shared location aside, the two thrillers differ greatly in tone.
Harrington’s “Last Ferry Home” is a sober police procedural with a surfeit of details that fans of the genre will savor. Were two children picked up at a neighbor’s home at 5:15 or 5:45? Why is a dagger, allegedly the murder weapon, smaller than the depth of the victim’s wounds? And why is the State Department interested in a domestic double murder?
The case sends O’Higgins and his partner tracking the killer of a wealthy Indian in Pacific Heights and the family nanny. The victim’s billionaire father insists that his daughter-in-law stabbed his son in a jealous rage over her husband’s alleged affair with the nanny. O’Higgins is skeptical, but not entirely objective: He’s besotted with the beautiful widow: “The woman’s smile ... had the power to heal a man.”
And O’Higgins needs healing. Nearly a year ago, his wife drowned at sea in a boating accident. A therapist he sees insists that O’Higgins stop popping Valium and confront his tragedy. The vividly written passages describing the detective’s journey back to the horrific moment surge with grief. O’Higgins emerges as a strongly drawn character, but so, too, are all the others who appear here. “Last Ferry Home” is standout work.
Christopher Moore, also a Bay Area author, says the tale he spins in “Noir” (a title that makes it easy for bookstores and libraries to find the right shelf for his book) is “perky noir,” owing more to Damon Runyon than Raymond Chandler.
Perky it is, and suffused with nostalgia for San Francisco in 1947, when the action takes place — and when language and attitudes, Moore forewarns us, were not politically correct.
Moore’s characters could populate a sequel to “Guys and Dolls.” The troupe includes Eddie Moo Shoes; Pookie O’Hara (“260 pounds of crooked cop”); and a blonde named Stilton, a.k.a. “The Cheese,’ whom protagonist Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin calls “Toots.”
Sammy’s problems are Stilton and a snake. One night a friend takes him to a “snake whiz place” where, for $20, older Chinese men drink a concoction of noodles and snake urine said to steel the men’s erections. (The deadlier the snake, the men claim, the better the results.) Sniffing a chance to make some bucks, Sammy orders a black mamba from a friend in Boise, Idaho. On arrival, the deadly reptile slides from his crate and and starts sinking its fangs into victims around town.
And then Stilton knocks Sammy’s socks off when she pulls up at the bar he tends on Grant, near Broadway: “She had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes — a size-eight dame in a size-six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it.”
Before you can say femme fatale, Sammy and the lady pass a long night of passion. But then, days later, the Cheese disappears, leaving a bereft Sammy desperate to find her.
His junket largely forms the rather simple arc of the story, which expands to draw in a black man determined to work as a Secret Service guard to Franklin D. Roosevelt, even though Roosevelt has been dead for some time; an Air Force general from Roswell, N.M., where a flying saucer has crashed; and a group of respected city professionals carrying on strange ceremonies up north.There’s fun in following Moore’s shaggy-dog plot, though some readers may find its ending loopy.
“Last Ferry’s” protagonist laments that “a rough-and-tumble legendary west coast port city (is changing into a] one-size-fits-all New America.” These two thrillers preserve a city where most everything comes in all sizes.
Gerald Bartell is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan. Email: books@sfchronicle.com
Last Ferry Home
By Kent Harrington
(Polis Books; $25.99; 301 pages)
Noir
By Christopher Moore