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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pitts Throws A Knuckleball In the Zone

By Tom Pitts
128 pages
(One Eye Press; March 24, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0692370773
ISBN-13: 978-0692370773

The classic knuckleball is thrown with the outside of the pitcher’s fingernails tucked against the horsehide of the ball. The technique makes the ball’s path almost impossible to follow for the batter, and a pitch that initially seems to be inside the strike zone often ends up far outside.

Tom Pitts’ excellent novella, “Knuckleball,” is the same type of pitch: so deceptive that it takes the reader by surprise, inducing him to swing at a phantom while the ball sails by unscathed.

Author Tom Pitts

Pitts is an editor at Out of the Gutter Online and the author of one of my favorite novellas, “Piggyback” (Snubnose Press, 2012). 

He also wrote the astonishing Hustle, a grim and bloody story about two rent boys’ attempt to shake down an elderly criminal defense attorney.

He spins Knuckleball with audacious skill.

To summarize the plot, a policeman, Hugh Patterson, is gunned down in uniform while watching a Giants game in a Mission District taqueria. The cop’s partner, Vince Alvarez, is some distance away when the shooting goes down, trying to raise his wife on his cell phone.

The shooter, a young Latino in a hoodie, a Giants team shirt and dark clothing, disappears into the crowd while Vince struggles to return to the scene. Despite a spate of rumors that emerge afterward – all of which are untrue – there is no clear motive for the crime.

Hugh’s murder convulses the city. Patterson, an obscure patrolman of no particular note, becomes a hero overnight solely by virtue of his inexplicable death. A reward raised for his attacker’s capture is quickly increased several times. He is memorialized on the giant Jumbotron scoreboard at AT&T Park, his 60-foot-high image rendered literally larger than life. The city is plastered with his photo, and the news of his death makes page one in both papers.

Meanwhile, Vince is guilt-ridden over his absence when the shooting occurred and lies about where he was when the shots were fired. Homicide detectives are baffled by his inability to give more than a vague description of the killer and grill him repeatedly about the shooting.

A few days later, Oscar, another young Latino man, identifies his sadistic, depraved brother Ramon as the gunman. He and a Mission District wino pick the brother out of a police lineup. Vince reluctantly goes along with the identification, even though he had not seen the shooter and had no idea who he was.

All this happens in the first third of the novella. The remainder of Pitts’ slim book concerns how the various conflicts work themselves out – or fail to.

The book drips with doom from the opening pages.

Pitts describes Patterson as the ideal police officer, a cop who “loved his uniform, loved his beat. Twice a week he and his partner were required to walk the 24th Street corridor. Only twice a week, Hugh lamented. They would take their time strolling from General Hospital all the way to Guerrero Street, stopping to hand out SFPD stickers to kids, to tell the older men to pour out their beers, and to gather intelligence, what his dad had called street smarts. You have to know your beat, Hugh would tell his partner.”

We hear of Patterson’s halting and only partially successful efforts to speak to Mission residents in their own tongue, his concern about poor and downtrodden residents, his reluctance to collar people for minor infractions, choosing instead to tap them for information that might lead to bigger, more important arrests.

A law enforcement officer so honest, open and responsive to the citizenry he serves can’t last long. Sure enough, Patterson is killed only a few pages into the book.

Pitts’ terse descriptions of the Mission are as clear and accurate as his treatment of the Tenderloin in Hustle.

In the latter book, you could almost smell the sour scent of human piss in the alleyways, the mildew aroma of the vagrants sleeping off a midday drunk in doorways, the reek of Lysol used to mop the cum from the booths in adult bookstores.

In Knuckleball, you can smell the decaying fruit from the bodegas, the spilled beer in the plaza at 16th Street BART, the pungent fat of carnitas cooking in the taco stands and the skunky odor of ganja drifting from the alleys.

This brief novel is classic noir that turns on transgressive behavior: characters screw up, then compound their original mistake while trying to conceal it. Pitts makes it clear that no good deed goes unpunished. In the wake of Patterson’s murder, Alvarez is subjected to hostile questioning by colleagues. Oscar is confronted by a petty criminal for snitching off his violent and despicable sibling while his mother, who cleans up a beauty salon to support the two young men, ignores his complaints about Ramon’s monstrous nature.

Looking back over the storyline, some of the plot developments seem inevitable. But Pitts manages to keep the reader plowing along, driven in large part by the questions: “What makes these people tick? Where is this book taking me next?” That is the nature of true psychological suspense – not a series of cliffhangers designed to artificially push the reader to the end.

At roughly 123 pages, Knuckleball is exactly the right length: Pitts does more in this slim volume than “art literature” authors can manage in an entire shelf of books.

The book starts with one murder and ends with a second; sandwiched between them is enough pain and stress to fill a psychological treatment manual. Knuckleball is a hell of a story. 

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