The Golden Gate Is Red , Jim Kohlberg, Open Road Press, 2012, Soft Cover.
Fans of both classic gumshoe detective novels and recent crime fiction will appreciate Jim Kohlberg’s new mystery novel The Golden Gate is Red. In this engaging book, the author gives readers a murder mystery set amid the atmospheric fog and steep hills of San Francisco. But unlike most crime fiction, Mr. Kohlberg focuses on the psychological toll paid by his main characters; the unraveling of whodunit takes a back seat to the emotional journeys. The result is a different kind of experience in reading a detective story — and with unexpected discoveries. The central character is a type of detective for the 21st century: a tax accountant. Max Smoller has toiled for years to cover for his clients, whom he describes as “the economically blessed and ethically impaired.” Max’s success came with a high cost, though. Many of his current clients have been sent to him by his former business partner, Joe Dempsey, who now runs a successful hedge fund. Five years earlier, Joe married Max’s beautiful girlfriend, Christina Lawson. The betrayal from the two people he was closest to has left Max with a hardness of heart that’s difficult to shake loose.
It’s a surprise, then, when Joe Dempsey contacts Max and asks to meet — particularly since the call comes shortly after Christina also contacted Max and asked for help. The IRS thinks Joe has been paying agents in order to get favorable treatment; Joe thinks the IRS is really after his hedge fund clients. Reluctantly, Max agrees to look at the tax returns being questioned by the IRS, and makes plans to meet with Joe the next morning.
But that morning meeting never happens. Joe is found bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat in his Pacific Heights home. Christina, who was at the crime scene and covered in blood, is the main suspect. Max is stunned by the death of his former best friend. And his heart can’t help but be moved by the plight of Christina, who has been taken into custody. Max pays her bail, sets her up in a hotel room at the Ritz Carlton, and arranges for a good lawyer to represent her.
As the investigation gets under-way, Max becomes more involved logistically and emotionally. Memories of the friendship he and Joe shared come back to him as he listens to Joe’s father speak at his son’s funeral. Joe’s life feels worlds away from Max’s as Max rubs elbows with Joe’s friends and clients at the wake; stories he is told about Joe and Christina’s life together don’t square with the people that he knew them as. With the district attorney’s office focusing on Christina and unable to identify any other suspect, Max does the best he can to protect her. But not even his efforts can prevent what’s in store for both Christina and for himself. In the end, Max is left with knowledge gained through experiences that are painful but which have helped him to reconnect with the world around him. Though the author eventually unravels the question of who killed Joe Dempsey, that plot point seems almost beyond itself; by the book’s end, the reader will have come to care more about Max Smoller’s inner life and where he’ll go from this tragedy.
Many aspects of Mr. Kohlberg’s writing will remind readers of the golden age of detective stories, perhaps best embodied by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. There are the omnipresent cigarettes and coffee, the importance of atmosphere, and the sense that a lone man is fighting for justice. The writing style is also Chandleresque in the exploration of an intimate voice for the narrator; the author is always clear in his expression of Max’s innermost thoughts. And for a story that is supposed to take place in 2003, there are some anachronistic throwbacks to another time, such as Max not using a cell phone.
But satisfaction is found in the author’s embrace of the deep delineation of Max’s psychology and in the vivid characters who come into Max’s world (for better or worse). Language is measured, which makes Max’s emotional breakthroughs all the more meaningful when they happen. Supporting characters include Detectives Hannaford and Hopkins — who trail Max in the friendliest of ways while continuing their investigation. There are also Joe’s Rolls Royce-driving, dot.com leader clients who can crumble a man’s business in just one conversation. And since behind every good man, there has to be a good woman, Max has his loyal, stubborn secretary Irene — a maternal figure who always knows what’s best for him and doesn’t hesitate to say what she thinks.
The author, a resident of the Bay area and lifelong seasonal resident of the Vineyard, has said that the book is based on how surprisingly affected he was by the brutal 2001 murder of his former business colleague Ted Ammon. That emotional investment could explain, in part, the depth of the emotional journey he has laid out for his central character. If so, readers can be grateful that Mr. Kohlberg took the opportunity to create an engaging story that also reminds us of what is most important in life — a lesson that sometimes only a death can teach us.