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Pierce Duncan, a young man just out of Notre Dame, sets off for the roads & rails of postwar America. It leads to strange & fateful meetings with individuals along the way; the most influential encounter is with a hard-nosed private eye who changes Pierce's life forever, leading him to San Francisco, where he must decide his ultimate path.

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Pierce Duncan, a young man just out of Notre Dame, sets off for the roads & rails of postwar America. It leads to strange & fateful meetings with individuals along the way; the most influential encounter is with a hard-nosed private eye who changes Pierce's life forever, leading him to San Francisco, where he must decide his ultimate path.

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Editorial Reviews

Marilyn Stasio
...[T]he adventure bounds along with the unquenchable energy of youthits reckless spirit only slightly tempered by a touch of authorial wistfulness.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"In Cases I have tried to mix fact and fiction so thoroughly that nobody--not even myself--can now entangle them," writes three-time Edgar winner Gores in an author's note to this intermittently gripping, semi-autobiographical saga of a young man's entry into the life of a San Francisco PI.

The entanglement is part of the problem: on his journey from Notre Dame to Baghdad by the Bay, bits of real life and enhanced memory seem to have become mixed up with the many films noir that Pierce Duncan enjoys. There's the Georgia chain gang movie, in which convicts murder a cruel guard; the Las Vegas crime and boxing movie, in which an honest pug dies rather than throw a fight; the Los Angeles religious cult movie, in which a young man finds love in a cloud of cuckoos. And, finally, there's the movie that Gores (who has worked as a PI) has been acting out, and writing down so well, for most of his professional life: the San Francisco PI film--part homage to Hammett, but mostly his own richly detailed vision of the world of skip-tracers, hired guns, sexy dames named April and Sherry and corruptible gumshoes like the memorable Drinker Cope. Gores is a master of noir fiction, an exuberant practitioner of staccato prose deepened by occasional moral reflection. This novel, while rich in atmospheric pleasures and sharp character sketches, is less meaty with plot. It reads best as the source of local color for such Gores classics as Dead Skip.

Twenty-one year old Pierce Duncan graduates from Notre Dame and sets off to see America and become a writer on the way. His travels take him from Mexico to Vegas and finally to San Francisco, where he decides the world of the detective is what he wants to enter. Along the way, he meets many characters of the '50s, such as gangsters and gun molls, and becomes involved in exploits that will become fodder for his notebook. Gores, a detective, patterns Dunc after himself, and his characters seem very real. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Warner, 354p., Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Barbara Jo McKee; Libn/Media Dir., Streetsboro H.S., Stow, OH
Library Journal
Did you hear about the time Pierce Duncan ("Dunc"), just graduated from Notre Dame--this was in 1953--took to the road through Georgia and Texas and ended up, inevitably, in Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco? Well, sit yourself down and read all about it in Edgar Allan Poe Award winner Gores' latest. With numerous references to Hammett and Hemingway, it's hard to miss Dunc's literary heroes, although the emulation here isn't quite equal to the adulation. Still, this is a fast-paced, raunchy yarn glowing with nostalgia for the days when the guys were armed, edgy, and dangerous and the molls were beautiful, insatiable, greedy, and equally dangerous in their own way. -- Bob Lunn, Kansas City Public Library, Missouri
Marilyn Stasio
...[T]he adventure bounds along with the unquenchable energy of youth, its reckless spirit only slightly tempered by a touch of authorial wistfulness. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
It's 1953, and Pierce Duncan, fresh out of Notre Dame, has decided to see this great country of ours and fill some of the notebooks he'll be using in his career as a writer. He gets arrested for passing through a Georgia town with a black friend, does a stint on a chain gang that ends with shocking suddenness, gets abandoned in the desert by a lovey-dovey couple who earlier pick him up, tags along to Juarez with a brawler who drives off with his notebooks, hitches to Vegas and a job tending a heavyweight contender who's in over his head, tangles with the schemers who are using the San Fernando Mission of the Priests of Melchizedek to smuggle wetbacks, finds that the girl of his prophetic dreams is a real person named Penny Linden who's engaged to a quarrelsome lout, and ends up on Gores' home turf of San Francisco, a town that still has all the seedy glamor of the dying pulps. It's here in San Francisco that Dunc, seasoned by dozens of acquaintances and scores of anecdotes, settles down to learn the business of skip-tracing-a business Gores (Contract Null and Void) knows better than any other writer alive-from seen-it-all shamus Drinker Cope, and here that all the pieces of this beautifully textured picaresque, from a killer Dunc should have remembered to an impossible penance that's been waiting for him ever since Georgia, finally fall together.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446677936
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 12/7/2007
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 8.00 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 0.82 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One

It was the summer of '53, he was twenty-one years old and thought himself gloriously drunk in the doorway of an empty box-car clanking through the hot southern night. Sweat gleamed on his face and trickled down between his shoulder blades. He raised his voice in song:

"Frankie and Johnny were lovers,
Oh my God how they could love.
Swore to be true to each other,
True as the stars above,
   He was her man
   But he done her wrong

    In a far corner of the boxcar another voice also was raised, not in song. "Hey, shut the hell up."

    He drained the last of the half-pint and threw the empty out into the darkness. After what seemed a long time he heard it shatter somewhere behind them. It didn't take much to get him high, he wasn't really a boozer: first time he ever got drunk had been just two years ago, on a bottle of seventy-nine-cent dessert wine. There had been grape skins in it. For a month afterward he'd gotten sick every time he saw a billboard advertising liquor.

"Frankie worked in a crib joint,
Crib joint with only one door,
She gave all her money to Johnny,
Who spent it on a high-price whore.
   He was her man
   But he done her wrong

    "I said knock it off." Same voice, pissed now. "Goddamn brakeman hear you, it's all our asses."

    The train was starting up a grade into some cracker town he didn't know the name of, the engine straining, the click-click of the wheels slowing against the joins of the rail sections. The wind blew rich swampland into his face.

"Frankie went up and down State Street,
She wasn't there for fun,
Under her red kimono,
She packed

    There were sudden scrabbling sounds from the corner of the boxcar, the thunder of charging feet. But he grabbed his duffel bag and was out the open doorway, floating, crunch!, already running when his heavy hack boots hit the cinder right-of-way beside the tracks, still belting out his song:

"--a .44 gun..."

He ran a dozen paces abreast of the moving train, slipping on the ties but keeping his feet. When he got himself stopped, still upright, he could see the pale retreating angry faces in the boxcar doorway. He cupped his hands to yell after them:

"She was looking for her man
Who was doing her wrong!

    Chuckling, he trudged toward the thin cluster of lights half a mile ahead. Too bad he'd had to jump off the train, but running was better than fighting. This way he could get something to eat before trying to catch another rattler. Tonight, for sure, miles to go before he'd sleep. When he had covered half the distance into town, it started to rain.

    A big man came from the still-open diner to pick his teeth by the light from the front windows. Yellow highlights gleamed on his black rain slicker as he moved down the street and around the corner and out of sight.

    The dishwater-blond waitress, alone behind the counter, reached under it for a movie magazine she placed open between her elbows on the red linoleum top. She leaned swaybacked with her behind stuck out while she read. The counter's wooden edging had been chipped and carved by generations of pocketknives. Most of the stools had rips in their imitation-leather seats.

    When the man off the night freight came in and shook water from his army fatigue cap, she straightened quickly, blushing at being caught goofing off. His fatigue jacket was wet-darkened across the shoulders. The walk in the rain had sobered him up. He was not tall, but wide and blocky. He grinned at her.

    "Good night for ducks."

    She had the sort of soft Georgia accent that made every sentence a question, almost every phrase a sort of invitation.

    "Don't figure you look as if it'd melt you none?"

    "That's for sure. You still serving?"

    "Burgers an' fries? Chili 'n' beans with oyster crackers?"

    "I'll have it all. Uh ... you got tea? Maybe with lots of cream and sugar for it?" He didn't much like tea, but he liked coffee less.

    She giggled. "Tea's for little old ladies."

    "That's about what I feel like, with the rain and all." He jerked his head toward the three booths under the windows that fronted the street. "Over there?"

    "You just pick your spot, Johnny Doughboy."

    Must be an army base somewhere around here; he was just as glad she hadn't noticed all his clothes weren't government-issue. In the end booth he opened his duffel bag and took out a dog-eared Gold Medal Original by John D. MacDonald, then sat with the paperback open in his hands, looking out through the window's cheap wavy rain-streaked glass at the deserted length of side street. Two pale lights bounced above the wet-gleaming gravel like buttons on a string.

    The main street, at right angles to this, would probably be called Center or Main or Broadway. Unless it was named after Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson. Here in South Georgia, that war was still being fought. That's why he'd chosen the booth: if the big man showed up again, he'd be out the back door. A week of riding the boxcars had made him wary and observant.

    When the man didn't appear again, he started to read The Damned, was instantly immersed in the lives of the people at a stalled river ferry in a sun-scorched little town south of the border down Mexico way. Be nice to see Mexico for himself.

    As he read, two dark shapes dropped off another rattler when it slowed for the same grade outside town. Their heavy shoes also struck the embankment running, but because of the rain sank into the soft grade fill to send out showers of wet cinders. One of them missed his footing in the dark, rolled down the slope until the long wet grass beside the right-of-way stopped him. He sat up and sniffed the half-acrid smell of dirt newly wet down.

    He laughed. "Hey, man, old brakeman never catch us now."

    A moving shadow trudged back, slid down the embankment on its heels, lit a cigarette, became a man.

    "I'd of whupped that bastard flat, you hadn't stopped me."

    The cupped match flame revealed a young, hard face with deep-welled blue eyes and a square, cleft chin. His hair was brown and curled tightly against his skull by the rain.

    The Negro, taller, stood up to brush the red loam off his brown cord trousers. "We don't need no more trouble." Slanting rain popped on his leather jacket and slid off, glistening. A dirty plaid cap hid his kinky hair. He was light-skinned enough to be called high yaller. "Come on, let's go into town and get us something to eat. I got two bits and two dimes and two pennies. You got any loot?"

    "Half a pack of butts," said the white man. "God, Larkie, could I use a drink. I'm wet and cold clean through."

    "No whiskey, Dale. Won't no one serve a white man and a colored man anyway."

    "If we weren't tap city--"

    "But we is."

    They waded through the sodden saw grass and smartweed that choked the ditch. A quail exploded from beneath their feet to squeak away into the darkness. Beyond the tracks was a shallow-rutted road of muddy sand. They turned toward the fitful yellow pocks that marked the town through the falling water. Far ahead, the freight train they'd left dropped its pressure with a sigh. Buckthorn and beaked hazel bushes flanked the road to their left, smelling fresh and sweet in the rain.

    The dirt track became a badly maintained gravel street. The rain seemed to drift through the wind-tossed streetlights' dim glow, but it drummed the wooden sidewalk like running feet.

    "Diner up ahead," said Dale.

    They hesitated in the windows' pale yellow glow to peer in cautiously. There was a lone patron in a window booth, munching a hamburger, immersed in a paperback. He wore an army fatigue jacket and was maybe a couple of years younger than they were. Probably from some local army base, as much a stranger as they. No worries there. A homely waitress was behind the counter, washing fountain glasses in gray soapy water.

    "What you think, Dale?"

    "I think she's got a kindly face. I think I got to get something into my gut."

    Normally Larkie would have waited outside, but it was raining hard now. The door's hinges squeaked. They stopped just inside to drip water on the floor. The girl looked at them uncertainly, then at the man in the window booth, then back at them. She finally came down the counter drying her hands on the towel wrapped around her middle like an apron. Her hair was the color and texture of straw, nearly as straight. She was without makeup and with a slight squint.


    "Look, miss." Larkie's hands moved like instruments to measure her credulity. "We got us forty-seven cents. It's cold and wet out and we just passing through. What that buy us?"

    She bit her lip, looking at the man in the booth again. But after his first quick sharp glance, he had not looked up from his book.

    "Well--I'll let you have two bowls of chili and two coffees, if you promise to eat fast? It should be fifty cents but I'm about to close up? I'm not supposed to serve--"

    She stopped abruptly. Perched at the end of the counter they slurped hot chili and drank steaming coffee as fast as their mouths could stand it, crunching down the whole heaped bowl of oyster crackers she brought.

    "Any work around here?" asked Dale. Under the light he was too big-boned for his size; although his hands were thick and powerful, his wrists managed to make them seem small.

    "No work in the state, I don't think." She looked around nervously, then leaned across the counter the way she had done to read her movie magazine. Her hair smelled of dime-store shampoo. "Listen, where are you boys from?"

    "Up no'th," said Larkie.

    She nodded. "You'd better ... Uh, they're sort of funny about... coloreds and whites around here. You'd do better to either split up or else go back up north again. You don't know how it is in this state."

    "We're learning," said Dale. "Me and Larkie have--"

    "Much obliged for the food, ma'am," said Larkie. He laid his forty-seven cents on the counter. "Wisht we had something extra for you."

    The girl blushed. "Oh, that's okay. You take care."

    "We most surely will, ma'am." He turned to Dale. "Come on, white boy. Let's blow."

    The big man in the black slicker was standing on the boardwalk, absorbed by a dusty display of women's hats in the millinery store two doors down from the diner. He looked like the sort of man who would find women's hats singularly uninteresting. Without seeming to, he blocked their way.

    Larkie said, "Uh-oh," as Dale skipped sideways like a monkey, his hand whipping toward his trouser pocket. Larkie shot out a long arm to lock the white boy's wrist with strong fingers. "Easy on," he said.

    The big man hadn't moved except to put his right hand under the shiny slicker. His straight brown hair, touched with gray at the temples, was combed severely back from a high forehead. His broad face wore bleak eyes and a gunfighter's mustache.

    "You got a head, black boy. Just passing through?"

    "You John Law?"


    "Just passing through."

    The big man shook his head slowly, almost sadly. A drop of rainwater fell from the end of his blunt nose.

    "Looks to me like maybe you're waiting around for little Sue Ellen to shut up the diner there. Then who knows? Maybe you plannin' on followin' her home--"

    "We wouldn't do nothing like that, Mr. Sheriff."

    "Or maybe you waitin' to rob the place." He swung around to point at the man reading inside. "Could be he's your lookout."

    "The soldier boy?" said Dale disdainfully. "We never laid eyes on him before."

    "He's no soldier boy, he's out of uniform--wrong shoes, wrong pants." Through the window he caught the eye of the man not quite in uniform, gestured for him to come out. "Brakeman off the train told me 'bout you two 'bos. Said to keep an eye on you, white boy. Said you think you're handy with a knife."

    Dale stepped back, blinking his eyes against the water running down from his tight curls. His face was deeply tanned and he wore a blue navy watch sweater that smelled of wet wool.

    "We ain't done nothing in your town, mister." His voice was low and sullen.

    "And you ain't about to," said the sheriff as he gestured at the man inside again, this time impatiently.

    "Shit," said the almost-soldier boy under his breath.

    He splayed his paperback open on the tabletop, raised his eyebrows in exaggerated query as his left hand pointed at his chest in apparent surprise. Why hadn't he got out when he'd had the chance? Because he'd gotten lost in The Damned, that's why.

    Instead of bumming around the country in boxcars, maybe he should have stayed home in Minnesota, worked at the lumberyard another summer, or behind a desk in his dad's accounting office, gone home at night to his mom's good cooking off nice china.

    But that wasn't what you did if you wanted to be a writer.

    Meanwhile, his right hand was already digging in his pants pocket. There were a wallet and two twenties and a five in there, along with some silver. Two fingertips drew his Social Security card and driver's license out of the thin worn leather, sandwiched them in the fold of the twenties. Outside, the big man in the slicker gestured again, as if vexed by the delay.

    The youth slid partway out of the booth; he had noticed a rip in the seat just wide enough to slip his twenties and identification into and out of sight. With only pocket change, he was a vagrant; but the twenties would be taken anyway, then used to suggest he had pulled a robbery somewhere back up the line. His Uncle Russ, who'd ridden the rods during the Great Depression, had warned him about that.

    He carried his duffel bag over the waitress, said, "Could you put this behind the counter and hold it for me until I pick it up?" When she nodded, puzzled, he made her wide-eyed by tossing the folded five down in front of her. "That's for holding the bag, miss. And for me and the other two boys. You keep all of that for yourself. Don't tell your boss about it."

    Outside, he joined the three waiting men, putting on his fatigue hat against the rain.

    "What's your name, 'bo?" said the sheriff.

    As a throwaway line in "The Joint Is Jumpin'," Fats Waller had sung, "Don't give your right name, no, no, no."

    "Peter Collinson," he said.

    "Army man?"

    "Not anymore." Not ever, but why tell the sheriff that?

    "What I thought. You're about halfway in uniform but you could have bought your clothes at an army-surplus store. I was just telling your friends here that maybe you three 'bos was planning a little larceny in my town."

    "You know I never saw these men before, Sheriff," said Collinson evenly. "You saw me come into town alone."

    "Know what I know. Saw what I saw. Riding the rattlers. Bumming meals in white restaurants where nigras ain't allowed. No visible means of support ... Know what all that means, 'bos?"

    Nobody answered him. Nobody had to.

    "Vag, that's what it means. Lots of road going through here, the state's poor and it needs cheap labor." He took Larkie's arm in one big paw, said to Dale, "Walk in front of us, 'bo, and keep your hand out of that pocket." He added, almost as an afterthought, "Jail's right comfortable, my wife does the cooking. Won't be but overnight anyway."

    They turned the corner and started down the main street. Confederate Boulevard, noted Collinson. That figured.

    Larkie pulled his plaid cap down against the rain, said politely, "Nice little town you got here, Sheriff."

    "It grows on you, 'bo. It grows on you."

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