As I’ve said multiple times on this here website (and other places): the concept of a lefty-leaning private eye is not all that radical (no pun intended). Chandler, Hammett, and Macdonald, often considered the trinity of male PI literature that birthed the modern Lone Detective mystery tale for America, were all sympathetic to working class folks and skeptical of the rich and those who protected them. Books cannot escape their context: look at Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole, whose early-90s novels carry the spirit of the late-80s Reagan hangover in which the powers that be are the PI’s allies, as opposed to their antagonists.
So all that to say, the idea of a socialist PI in 1930s San Francisco isn’t far fetched. Gordon DeMarco wrote this in 79 but thought (sensibly so) that the story would make more sense as a Sam Spade tale set amidst the backdrop of California labor strife. DeMarco clearly has a deep knowledge of unions and labor in general and it shows. He also has a love for Hammett-esque dialogue. This really is nothing more than an attempt to shoehorn a Sam Spade story into historical events.
Unfortunately, while DeMarco is a talented writer, he commits too hard to the concept. And thus, what may have been an engrossing murder mystery tale felt like a cheap imitation since he has to hit all the familiar beats: the femme fatale, the faceless thugs and, of course, the tough talking dialogue. DeMarco can make his Riley Kovachs sound well enough like Humphrey Bogart but unlike The Maltese Falcon, it gets in the way of the story. And it makes you wish you were reading/watching the real thing.
But I am glad I found this book thanks to the estimable CrimeReads.com. It was an interesting, at times fun read.