FORGOTTEN BOOKS: THE CANVAS PRISON!
If Mike Hammer had been a raving left-wing radical his name would have been Riley Kovachs. The late Dennis Lynds took some chances under his Michael Collins pseudonym imbuing his detective character Dan Fortune with a more liberal political bent than his contemporaries.
But Gordon DeMarco’s P.I. Riley Kovachs wears his bleeding heart liberal politics on his sleeve – all the better to shove them down your throat. There is not a lot of subtly here. In many ways, Demarco’s writing verges on parody, but is kept in check because, while Kovacks’ politics are as wildly left wing as Hammer’s are right wing, they come off as sincere in the end.
Kovachs works the San Francisco streets in the era of the ‘30s through the ‘50s tangling with the labor movement and running into as many celebrities (Charlie Chaplin, Frances Farmer, Satchel Paige) as you’ll find in a half-dozen of Stuart Kaminski’s Toby Peters books. Demarco reaches back into America’s hidden histories with general strikes and anti-fascist resistance as the setting for his hero’s adventures rather than mean streets.
Surprisingly, DeMarco chooses to model his writing style on Chandler rather than Dashiell Hammett, whose personal politics were much more overtly leftist. However, Demarco claimed he saw Chandler’s writing as more of a social investigation creating a language which ‘embodied the poetry of the urban malaise’ and sought to incorporated it into his own writing.
The first two Kovachs books, Canvas Prison and October Heat are extremely earnest to the point of peachiness, but by the third – and unfortunately final book in the series – Frisco Blues, DeMarco toned down the politics and reigned in his Chandlerisms enough for the plot to come through and present a solid yarn.
DeMarco presents his ‘small-change-dick’ Riley Kovachs as a man who genuinely likes people, riffs on baseball, and doesn’t take himself too seriously – Don Quixote in a fedora – which makes his political emphasis tolerable. All of the left wing rhetoric about working conditions in Akron tire plants and the docks of San Francisco comes with heaping helpings of tough-guy talk and an underlying amusement at the world. Kovachs shouldn’t be dismissed because of his politics, but embraced because of them – he’s different than the run of the mill private dick and this makes him standout.
THE RILEY KOVACS NOVELS:
THE CANVAS PRISON (1982)
OCTOBER HEAT (1979)
FRISCO BLUES (1985)