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Book Review: Bones of the Barbary Coast by Daniel Hecht


Published July 5, 2006 at 1:53 p.m.

Beach-book authors such as Dean Koontz may be climbing the best-seller list, but Montpelier's Daniel Hecht is ambitious in a different way. According to his website, the musician-turned-thriller-writer aims to eventually write a book set in every U.S. state; so far, he has covered Louisiana, New Mexico and, now, California. His third book in the Cree Black series, Bones of the Barbary Coast, confirms his predilection for atmospheric locales with serious historical baggage.

It's hard to imagine how Cree -- short for Lucretia -- Black could emerge from 47 more mysteries with her psyche intact, if those books are anything like the first three. Cree is an empath with special sensitivity to the residual energies of the dead -- a ghost whisperer, as it were -- and runs a paranormal study group called Psi Research Associates. No mere ghost chaser, Cree is also a psychology Ph.D., armed with theory and jargon. We learn that she discovered her special abilities when she spotted her husband on a Philadelphia street, minutes after he'd been killed in a car crash in Los Angeles.

That background leads us to expect a ghost story in Bones. But Hecht doesn't deliver one, at least not in the literal sense. As Cree points out at the beginning of the novel, ghosts are always half metaphor anyway: "Most reports of hauntings, real or imagined, come from individuals in the process of some important life passage," she explains. "The paranormal crisis is nothing less than a paradigm collapse."

Heavy stuff. The "paradigm collapse" in Bones is embodied by a skeleton discovered in the rubble-strewn basement of a Victorian mansion in San Francisco's elegant Pacific Heights neighborhood. We quickly discover that the deceased was a victim of the massive 1906 earthquake whose corpse was never retrieved.

What's not so clear is what he was. The forensic anthropologist on the case dubs the skeleton the "Wolfman," because its abnormalities suggest a bizarre hybrid of the human and the canine. Who was this freak of nature? And who were the respectable Victorians who, evidently, kept him hidden in their basement?

Though the police have little interest in the Wolfman's death, Cree is called in on the case covertly by Bert Marchetti, a crusty San Francisco cop who's a long-time friend of her family. Bert suspects the bones might be connected to other cases, some involving deadly dog attacks, that he'd like to solve before his imminent retirement. Soon Cree finds herself in the middle of a grudge match between Bert and Cameron Ray, a young radiation technologist who has reasons to see the cop as less than a good guy . . . and who just happens to own three large attack dogs.

Meanwhile, the reader is privy to information Cree doesn't have, both about Ray and about the Wolfman's history. Large chunks of the novel are devoted to the 1889 journal of Lydia Jackson Schweitzer, one-time resident of the Pacific Heights house. These contain the novel's most memorable passages, because they plunk us down in the "Barbary Coast" -- the name given to the red-light district of San Francisco back when it was "one kick-ass wild town" and had a murder rate 100 times that of today.

Hecht meticulously researches his thrillers. If you've ever wanted to know how to prepare a 100-year-old skull for cranial reconstruction, you can find out here, in colorful detail. When Lydia Schweitzer leaves her cossetted life and explores the dives of the Barbary Coast, you can hear the gaslight sputter and smell the pools of liquor on the floor.

Bones harps on a theme that is the bread-and-butter of all gothic tales: the duality of man. The Wolfman, half human and half animal, comes to represent the precarious stance of the average person between good and evil, empathy and savagery. Lydia says it best when she asks, "If gentleness can reside in so fierce and strange a being [as the Wolfman] . . . cannot we make a similar claim for the worst of us?"

As Bert puts it, "It's the ambiguity that gets you." In Hecht's case, though, it's manufactured ambiguity -- creating suspense by doling out information strategically to the reader -- that pulls the book down from the level to which it aspires. There is also intermittent reliance on hoary noir clichEs, such as the cop who is hardboiled because of a personal loss.

The pivotal character of Ray suffers most from Hecht's need to keep us guessing. When we first meet him, he seems like an unambiguous candidate for the title of the thriller's resident psycho. Convinced that there's eternal verity to be found in violence, Ray is the type of guy who spouts New Age-speak even as he roughs up someone he thinks is holding out on him. "Why can't we have a meaningful conversation?" he asks his victim plaintively.

Hecht throws us for several loops with this character, not all of them convincing. His meaning is clear -- like the Wolfman, like Bert Marchetti, like most of us, Ray has too many layers to be summarily judged. All the same, the net effect of this carefully maintained ambiguity is to lower Cree's character in our estimation: We wonder why on Earth she's getting so friendly with a man who likes to make creepy projects with Photoshop and email them anonymously to his enemies.

A hybrid itself, half thriller and half literary historical novel, Hecht's latest doesn't quite achieve the authentic grittiness of, say, a James Ellroy story; its dark view feels a bit belabored. However, the book's humanism, best embodied in Lydia, shines through. Bones of the Barbary Coast is a thinking person's read for those hot summer evenings when a chill down the spine is most welcome.



From Bones of the Barbary Coast (Lydia Schweitzer's journal):

The Red Man takes its name from the Indian, and maintains the conceit in its decor and furnishings. A carved wooden Indian, dour and savage, stands in front, and inside there are souvenirs of native life: buffalo skins, tanned hides with pagan designs on them, rows of scalps hanging on a string, bows and spears and battle axes. There is even a mummified or desiccated Indian tied up against the wall, horribly shriveled so that his lips are drawn back from his teeth. It is a foul, shabby place of smoke-darkened board walls, gas flames fluttering dangerously from fixtures without globes, wired-together wooden chairs and deeply scarred tables scattered on a floor more dirt than board. The pretty waiter girls wear only an Indian's loincloth, and endure whatever fondling or insult to their persons the drinkers give them; they are constantly leading men up the stairs to assignations in the second-floor rooms. As we wedged into the crowd, we were suffocated by the stink of unwashed bodies, rotting teeth, stale alcohol, spoiled food, and worse. Moments after we arrived, a fight broke out in the far corner, although in the press we could not see it, only hear breaking glass and the shouted encouragements of watchers.

At the rear, a wide doorway leads into a second room with a raised stage along its back wall, where for the gratification of the customers women are frequently subjected to degradations I can not bear to write of. Through this doorway, we could see what must be the wolf-man's cage, a canvas-draped rectangle that filled the width of the stage and was pained with a lurid illustration of a werewolf. It was not yet time for the "performance," and with the crowd distracted by the fist-fight, we were able to push through without too much difficulty.