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Noir Guy

Mystery writer Mark Coggins lets his technophobe detective prowl through San Francisco.

Photo: Mark Citret

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By Charles Matthews

Mark Coggins experienced a eureka moment—a career-defining one, as it turned out—in his freshman creative writing class. To demonstrate prose style, Professor Tobias Wolff read aloud the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Coggins, “enraptured,” went out to read all the Chandler he could.

Coggins, ’79, MS ’88, has created four novels about San Francisco private detective August Riordan, the most recent of which is Runoff (Bleak House Books). Riordan was born in a class taught by Stegner fellow Ron Hansen. Coggins wrote a story centering on Riordan, “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes,” that Hansen encouraged him to try to publish.

Coggins’s undergraduate degree was in international relations, with a specialty in Soviet studies. He developed an interest in computers and went to work for Hewlett-Packard while getting his master’s. He began another story, however, that became his first novel, The Immortal Game (Poltroon Press, 1999).

Like most computer people in Silicon Valley, Coggins has moved from company to company, and now is senior vice president for engineering at Actuate in San Mateo. His day jobs inspired a second August Riordan mystery, Vulture Capital (Poltroon Press), published in 2002. Candy From Strangers (Bleak House) followed in 2006.

Coggins admits that he had Clint Eastwood, a jazz aficionado, in mind when he created Riordan—a jazz bassist who drives a battered Ford Galaxie 500 and is a hard-core technophobe. (Until Runoff, Riordan could not even be persuaded to carry a cell phone.) Riordan prowls the noir San Francisco turf that was once the province of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. The Flood building, where Riordan has his office, once housed the Pinkerton Agency where Hammett worked.

But if Spade is the archetypal hard-boiled detective, Riordan is only medium-boiled. “He’s not as competent as Spade, or as successful, or as smooth,” Coggins says. Riordan’s closest sidekick, Chris Duckworth, is a cross-dressing gay man who has the computer skills Riordan lacks. One doubts that Spade, who notoriously roughed up Joel Cairo and Wilmer the gunsel, would approve of Chris.

In Runoff, Riordan investigates a case of election fraud in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Like all the Riordan tales, it’s packed with local color—which Coggins, a photographer, illustrates in black and white. Each novel has a slide show of his deftly atmospheric photographs of San Francisco and Bay Area places where the stories occur. They can be seen on his website.

Runoff centers on the rigging of electronic voting machines. To get the details right, Coggins consulted Stanford computer science professor David L. Dill. Riordan also consults a Stanford professor in Runoff, but Coggins insists the character in the book isn’t modeled on Dill: “It’s actually me—a self-portrait.”

Coggins has tried out another character, Vic Lane, in a story set in 1920s San Francisco that was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He likes the period setting and sees the potential for a novel about Lane. But Riordan seems likely to live on, too. Coggins, negotiating a two-book contract with his publisher, is working on The Dead Beat Scroll, in which Riordan investigates the theft of a hitherto unknown manuscript by Jack Kerouac.

Coggins wryly notes that not all of his experiences in Stanford’s creative writing classes were as fruitful as those with Wolff and Hansen. In one class, he developed a crush on the instructor. “A lot of my stories for her class were thinly veiled fantasies about me and her. She never said anything about it in our story conferences.” When the instructor’s next novel appeared, he says, “I bought it. There’s a character in it, a lecherous professor, and his name is Coggins. I guess that was her revenge.”

CHARLES MATTHEWS is a freelance writer and former book editor of the San Jose Mercury News.

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