(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. He’s the youngest child of author Robert Terrall [1914-2009], who—under the pseudonym Robert Kyle—penned a series of novels featuring Manhattan private detective Ben Gates, as well as other crime-fiction works.)
John Goins’ first novel, A Portrait in the Tenderloin, was published by the San Francisco-based small press Ithuriel’s Spear in 2013. The book followed reporter Bill Haywood as he attempted to solve the murder of his brother. Now Goins has a new novel out called The Coptic Cross out from the same publisher, again a mystery featuring Bill Haywood. This time the journalist is involved in the disappearance of a former lover.
As with A Portrait in the Tenderloin, The Coptic Cross is full of tart observations about the challenges of being black in San Francisco. At the beginning of the book, Haywood is relaxing in his apartment at one in the morning. When someone bangs on the door, he fears it might be the police, and, given that he has hashish on his nightstand, his mind goes to a worst-case scenario. “I could imagine them leading me out in cuffs—one of the few black people who lived in the neighborhood.” He reflects, “Had the country really changed? It was 2012 and I was as afraid of the cops as my great-grandparents must’ve felt in 1912 when black people were being lynched across our country.” (The visitor turns out to be his Eritrean ex-girlfriend, Ayana, who is on the run from troubles she won’t divulge.)
Bill doesn’t feel particularly comfortable in his Presidio Heights neighborhood. He recalls that when Ayana spent time with him there, his neighbors looked at them “as if we were interlopers who had no right to be there unless we were collecting their garbage or working the cash register at the overpriced Cal Mart grocery store a few blocks away.” Bill doesn’t have much money in his bank account and is alienated from what San Francisco has become: “I was tired of the City. It was changing in ways that made me feel more and more like an outsider, a man who was no longer welcome. Many of the people I had grown up with had already moved away, unable to afford the high cost of living, which grew worse every year.”
Writing for a non-profit newspaper called the San Francisco Dealer takes Haywood to parts of San Francisco worlds away from Presidio Heights. Based in the rugged Tenderloin neighborhood, the Dealer covers the challenges faced by some of the city’s poorest residents, which is in keeping with Haywood’s sympathies. In his attempts to unravel the mystery of who committed a murder he fears the police will blame on his ex, Haywood’s investigation repeatedly takes him back to his childhood home, the Fillmore district. There, Goins introduces us to a variety of neighborhood denizens, many of whom have plenty to say about the decimation of San Francisco’s black population. His friend Tyrone recalls the classic African-American take on the “urban renewal” which demolished acres of inner-city housing stock during the 1960s: “[A]ll of the black folks in the Fillmore knew what it was—‘Negro Removal,’ and that’s what we called it!”
Bill Haywood is an endearing protagonist who defies many of the clichés of the hard-boiled mystery hero. He’s chivalrous and possesses a moral code worthy of Ross Macdonald’s private eye, Lew Archer, but he doesn’t excel as a brawler. Early in this book he describes having his ass kicked by “a veteran from one of our interminable wars,” and shortly after that he is knocked down by an angry woman trying to get into his apartment: “I was on my knees, unable to move or defend myself: stunned. She was standing over me, like Ali over Liston, her fist raised, daring me to get up!” Haywood is also more prone to reflection than most heroes of genre fiction. He likes to read poetry, write haiku (which, refreshingly, he doesn’t always like), work in his garden, and hang out in a friend’s bookstore listening to old records.
Jazz and blues music permeates the book, and given that many of the players referenced (Ben Webster, Lee Morgan, Muddy Waters, Monk, and Mingus, among others) are dead, there’s a certain amount of wistful pathos to this musical subtext that echoes the aching loss of black life in San Francisco.
Despite their crushing problems, the working people in The Coptic Cross aren’t ready to roll over to the powers that be, whether real-estate speculators or the Homeland Security bureaucrats who make life difficult for the novel’s Eritreans. In this book’s epilogue, Haywood goes to the Monterey Jazz Festival with Tyrone and sees a lineup of contemporary jazz icons, some of whom he gets to meet. When a Fillmore elder dies, that man leaves some of his money to the Dealer, saving Bill’s job for a while. And the raccoon that has been plaguing Bill’s existence is finally driven from his backyard. Life goes on, and the reader is left hoping that Goins will again bring back Bill Haywood, witness and foil to the increasing injustices of neo-liberal San Francisco. ◊