Crime novels are sold in neatly sliced sub genres: Hard-boiled, Cozy, Historical, Nordic noir. These artificial boundaries are a construct of the book business to help sell books. But many writers blur those lines–or at least mash up a few of them. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is considered a classic of crime fiction. Highsmith set the book in the Italian fishing town of Mongibello, in the city of Venice, and other locales. The detectives looking for Ripley are professional policemen, but the story (told in the third person) is from an amateur perspective–Ripley himself. Ripley might be said to be a detective in reverse: an amateur sleuth obscuring his crimes with the frenetic energy of a first-timer. There is little gore, no sex, yet Ripley’s convoluted sexual identity colors the book with repressed tension. Highsmith’s book rumbles across the artificial boundaries of the crime genre.
I worked in San Francisco as a private investigator in the 1990s. After I returned several times on cases in 2002, it was clear that the San Francisco I had known was rapidly changing. I had written poems and short pieces about the city but felt a powerful need to explore it again in a crime novel. The book features my San Francisco, not the one others might remember—a city colored with my images, biases, and memories from cases that I had worked on as law student and PI.
Among the famous hills of San Francisco is Telegraph Hill, a gorgeous section of San Francisco where small cottages dot the hillside alongside Spanish-style homes. A flock of wild parrots twitter in trees overhead as the neighborhood denizens make their way downhill for a coffee in the North Beach caffes. I walked countless times from Telegraph Hill to Nob Hill, where cable cars stopped at the famous Mark Hopkins Hotel as fog rolled down California Street to ice the night.
But the underworld of San Francisco was never far away. Standing on the tip of Nob Hill at California Street, you could look down Jones Street to a different section called the Tenderloin–one of greatest mixes of wealth and poverty in the U.S., separated by just a few blocks. The Tenderloin took its name from a section of old New York City. In the late 19th century, a New York cop was promoted to midtown, where gambling & prostitution were rampant He told a reporter that he had been “eating rump steak down in the Fourth precinct, but now I have a chance to eat some of the tenderloin.” People took this as a reference to taking bribes to look the other way, and the name came to be used as a pejorative for the city’s red light district. To this day, San Francisco’s Tenderloin district has struggled to match the rest of the city’s growth. In the 1990s, Turk Street glittered in the sunlight from dozens of shattered bottles. Drug dealing went on openly in Boedekker Park and prostitutes worked the streets at all times of the day and night. It was a far cry from the top of Nob Hill, which was just a few blocks away.
All these San Francisco neighborhoods were populated with fantastic characters. As I walked, I picked up the vibrant dialogue on the streets. There was a homeless man named Billy, who rose out of his cardboard boxes each Friday night to read poetry at the Yakety Yak Cafe. A pool hall down the street, Hollywood Billiards, where you could shoot some stick with unemployed hit men. Within minutes of walking past bars like The Driftwood or the Coral Sea, I would stride by wealthy homes on California Street, then into the North Beach neighborhood near the base of Telegraph Hill, where the guys at Florence Ravioli Factory fired carom shots off the customers in an all-day comedy fest.
All of this was crammed in tight confines. Japanese tourists who stayed downtown at Hotel Nikko would sometimes ignore the doorman’s warning and turn left out the door into the prostitutes, drug dealers and rough trade. They looked dazed—how could a cozy $500 per night room be so close to . . . this? I suggested to them some contrasting sections of San Francisco—Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill were just a short walk of street poetry away.
So the city of San Francisco was unique– or was it? Cozy on Telegraph Hill, noir down in the Tenderloin. You can find inspiration just a few blocks away in any place if you look hard enough. Great settings always offer a contrast between heaviness and lightness, and the authors we come of love present us with a bit of each. In my novel, the detective reflects on the mixed blessings of the city, the poverty that exists in plain sight of opulent wealth. While troubled by the contrast, he knows that he is in love: “Even when you see her grimy face and wasted ways, you love her like a woman—the endless promise of California.”
What is your own private California?
John Nardizzi is an investigator, lawyer, and writer. His writings have appeared in numerous professional and literary journals, including San Diego Writers Monthly, Oxygen, Liberty Hill Poetry Review, Lawyers Weekly USA, and PI Magazine. His fictional detective, Ray Infantino, first appeared in print in the spring 2007 edition of Austin Layman’s Crimestalker Casebook. Telegraph Hill is the first crime novel featuring Infantino.
In May 2003, John founded Nardizzi & Associates, Inc., an investigations firm that has garnered a national reputation for excellence in investigating business fraud and trial work. His investigations on behalf of people wrongfully convicted of crimes led to several million dollar settlements for clients like Dennis Maher, Scott Hornoff and Kenneth Waters, whose story was featured in the 2010 film Conviction.