It’s 1977 and the Reverend Jim Jones has moved his Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Guyana. Rumors immediately shoot through the city that Jones is taking revenge on all of his critics. When a former Temple member and friend of Tenderloin vagabond Sleeper Hayes is murdered, and another friend is accused of the crime, Sleeper sets out to uncover the truth. But the truth and justice are hard to find as Sleeper becomes the Temple’s next target while investigating a murderous plot that stretches from skid row all the way to City Hall.
Thanks again to the world of social networking , my attention was drawn to Court Haslett and the very positive vibe surrounding Tenderloin. As a reader who is instantly drawn to novels depicting the more real and less salubrious aspects of American life. and with a fervent interest in American political and social history, I found this too tempting an opportunity to miss and had to read.
From the very outset, Haslett has created a slice of evocative fiction, perfectly depicting the seedy underbelly of San Francisco life in the 1970‘s. With much the same depth of social study afforded to the run down New York neighbourhood of Gabriel Cohen’s Red Hook, or the Washington DC of George Pelecanos, Haslett focuses on the eponymous San Francisco neighbourhood of Tenderloin. With the affection, but also sharply critical eye of someone who has lived in this area, Haslett instantly draws the reader into the essential life, sights and sounds of this neighbourhood, but underscoring the very real social deprivations that inner city living produces. Setting his book against the backdrop of the real life events of 1978, the book is suffused with references to the political and social mores of this period, but also cut through with well placed references to the effervescent cultural life in the period through music (an integral part of the book) and sport. Setting his book in this particular period, makes the inclusion of the illegal and murderous activities of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, tailor-made as a main plot device in the book. The less than honourable affiliation of Jones with the echelons of political power in the city, is a great hook for this solidly researched and presented tale, that kept my interest throughout, with its engaging and tense plotting.
In terms of characterisation, Sleeper Hayes, Haslett’s central protagonist, is a real find. Yes, there are comparisons to be drawn with the hardboiled tradition of American crime writing, in the presentation and spare prose with which Haslett realises his characters, but this perfectly taps into the spirit of the 1970‘s and the more relaxed attitude both to life, and making a living, of Hayes and his cohorts. Hayes is a gambler with a gambler’s instincts, and despite his probable protestations to the contrary he has a very defined moral centre, that cannot be denied by the overall loucheness and positively horizontal relaxedness of his outward character. Hayes exists in a world populated by criminals, bums, boxers, hookers and bent politicians- think a 70‘s set version of The Wire- but ingratiates himself into all these worlds through the vitality and doggedness of his character, which some take to more than others! He is sharp, funny and proves an unlikely knight in shining armour at the core of this book, but is eminently likeable and genuinely a character I would love to read about again.
I was very impressed this book, and between you, me and the gatepost this is a book I could have easily missed out on in the overcrowded crime genre. This book sits perfectly alongside Pelecanos and Lehane in my opinion, with its no-holds-barred depiction of urban American life and crime, so well worth a look.