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dead skip

8 august 2018

I was led to Dead Skip (1972) by Joe Gores from some list of top private-eye novels I'd copied down years ago, lost the source of, and have read from at very desultory intervals ever since. The list, wherever I got it, has been excellent, leading me to sharp, entertaining novels like The Last Good Kiss and The Rainy City. Gores' Dead Skip is even better than those in some ways, a thoroughly satisfying PI procedural.

"PI procedural?" I hear you cry. The two genres are supposed to be antithetical. Procedurals are police stories, based on impersonal routines involving shoe leather, forensics, and databases. Private-eye stories are about a bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer, $25 a day plus expenses, and the dame who was trouble the moment she walked in.

Gores managed to blend the two modes in Dead Skip in delightful and compelling ways. The private dicks in Dead Skip are repo men. You wouldn't think entire agencies of investigators could be devoted to retrieving unpaid-for cars, but this is California in 1972. The place runs on wheels, and in the mean streets of the Bay Area, not a few drivers find unoriginal ways to economize on those wheels. The men of DKA, Daniel Kearny Associates, have more than full-time jobs getting those cars back to their title-holders.

The initial crime in Dead Skip is assault with intent to kill. The men of DKA investigate because, in a wrinkle dear to PI storytellers, the cops don't believe it was foul play. The would-be killer has made it seem that one of the DKA repo men has gone out joyriding in a client's Jaguar, and driven it off one of San Francisco's Twin Peaks. The cops buy the flimsy appearance of a drunken spree, despite all our heroes' history with the brained, disciplined, sober Bart Heslip, who is now in a coma in an area hospital. Can DKA track down his assailant?

Joe Gores evidently worked for a repossession agency called DKA; his boss was named Dave Kikkert. I don't know how many near-homicides they were called upon to solve when the police refused to help. But Gores' experience clearly shows in the procedural part of the tale. To find whoever slugged Heslip, the detectives have to go through the files on the cases he was working.

Their methods involve a relentless use of basic information. In 2018, we'd use the Internet; in 1972, these operatives have to stop to make phone calls, and often trick folks into supplying the records they need. But for all the old-tech feel of Dead Skip, the principles of pursuit haven't changed much:

Damned tough to stay out of the way of an agency like DKA if it really wanted you. You had to change your name, dye your hair, keep your kids out of school, quit your union or your profession, tear up your credit cards, abandon your wife, not show up at your mother's funeral, run your car into a deep river, quit paying taxes, get off welfare. (88)

Some of the suspects the pursuit generates are anodyne, others violent but feckless. One is a "dead skip," meaning that in order to avoid his car payments, he really does seem to have vanished from the face of the earth. The title can probably clue you into which of the suspects turns out to be the operative one.

But there are many twists before he's tracked down. The interaction among Kearny's men, especially between Kearny and the primary investigator, Ballard, is strongly portrayed. One showdown between Kearny and an implacable career criminal is tense and telling. Testosterone flows freely, but the women in the story are smart and powerful, especially Giselle Marc, the office manager who contributes as much to the solution as the gumshoes do.

Gores also creates believable black characters. Unfortunately, the best of them, Bart Heslip, spends the novel in a coma. I was reminded here of Ed McBain's Cop Hater, another procedural where a simpatico African-American character carries the first few pages of the novel before going down for the count. Dead Skip thus turns into a story of white knights to the rescue of their incapacitated black comrade, without having to show much interracial interaction, or give the black guy much agency. It was 1972, you might object but on the other hand, it was 1972. Novels don't date innocuously; they are sometimes very precise in their social blind spots.

But for all that, and for its occasional fussy car-financing detail and its slight corniness (Dave Kearny really is a superhero of the streets), Dead Skip is a terrific read. It was the first of Gores' DKA novels, and far from the last, and I'd like to get to some more of them before long.

Gores, Joe. Dead Skip. New York: Random House, 1972.