Homicide inspector Ben Raveneau is the focus of novelist Kirk Russell’s San Francisco-based procedural series. First in the series, A Killing in China Basin, won kudos from Booklist: “A plot that’s chock-a-block with red herrings and unexpected twists, an appealingly hard-bitten hero, and plenty of action make this solidly written police procedural a good choice for all fans of the genre.” Novelist Michael Connelly also had praise for this new series and its protagonist, noting, “A city storied with characters gains a relentless new hero with Ben Raveneau.” Second in the series, Counterfeit Road, comes out in May.
Former DEA agent and now head of a special operations unit of the California Department of Fish and Game, John Marquez is the unlikely protagonist of Russell’s first series, which began with the 2003 title, Shell Games, and continued with Night Game, Dead Game, and the 2011 installment, Redback. Booklist called Marquez “far and away the most inventive new detective hero,” and of the fourth installment that same periodical declared: “Readers looking for a superbly crafted, cleverly plotted, highly suspenseful thriller with a larger-than-life hero need look no further than Redback—or, indeed, the entire John Marquez series. Outstanding!”
Counterfeit Road, my latest, is the second with a San Francisco homicide inspector. A third is in the works. When I was young San Francisco was called ‘the city’ and every other town on the bay was an outlier. You crossed bridges to get there and return. As a kid, it was magical, mystic. That was before the taller buildings when the city still flowed with the hills. My connection is somewhere back there and deep.
What things about San Francisco make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Among US cities I think San Francisco is most similar to New Orleans in its distinct qualities. It doesn’t need a Chamber of Commerce to organize a campaign to globally brand it. And it’s not too big, but big enough to be diverse. The ocean and bay, the light changes lend themselves to mood shifts in a story and to beauty and what could be. It’s an international city, which allows a fluidity in characters coming and going, and in what is possible and plausible.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I wanted to write from inside the city. I wrote four novels with a character heading an undercover Fish and Game team. That team passed through San Francisco many times, but I wanted someone enfranchised and inside the city who would know the streets and some of the secrets.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Description in crime fiction is risky for how it can derail narrative drive. It can’t be a writer indulgence. It needs to be inside. If a man is going to shoot another man and he’s chasing him in a car, and the man chased is terrified and skids to a stop in the lot at Ocean Beach and runs into the fog hoping it will hide him, then his abandoned car and shoe prints on the wet sand and the surf with its treacherous riptide all fit.
How does Raveneau interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster?
In A Killing in China Basin, the first book of this hoped for series, early on Raveneau, the protagonist, drives out to the cliff where the bow section of the USS San Francisco is in place as a memorial. The bow points out at the Pacific toward Guadalcanal and the pivotal WWII battle that the ship was in. Raveneau’s father was on that boat. Raveneau gets his first name, Benjamin, from a friend of his father’s who was killed at Guadalcanal. So I went the native route and did so because I wanted his memories of the changes to the city and for him to work a cold case and remember how that wharf was when the killing happened years ago. An outsider is a powerful angle in crime fiction, but native felt right to me.
My first was in 2003 and ever since I’ve heard from abalone divers and people who know the north coast. That’s been grand. People hook into land they know and I’ve learned things and had some good back and forth with readers. Less so with Raveneau, the homicide inspector, but it’s early in that series. None so far have been translated out of English.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I’ve added overpasses and onramps and generally improved the roads, sometimes in great error. And I’ve been a boon to cell networks and been called on it plenty, as in why don’t you come here and show us how to make a cell phone work in this valley.
Of the Raveneau novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place?
Raveneau, the protagonist, lives in a one-bedroom apartment built on the roof of a three-storey, brick industrial building at the edge of an area called China Basin. A three-foot wide plank walkway runs across the asphalt roof from the stairwell to the deck in front of the apartment. He’s there in the late night and at dawn sometimes stands along the parapet with coffee watching the dawn come to the bay. Not the kind of place many would choose, but it works for him, an industrial building made for a purpose and the changing continuing beauty of a dawn.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
The lyric way James Lee Burke weaves place has influenced me. It’s a gift he has and I doubt it’s made me any better but it has influenced me. Reading him has made me more aware of rhythm and less shy about repeating. I’m drawn to place. Writing the Marquez novels, the undercover Fish and Game lieutenant, who is moving around with his team often covering a great deal of open country made me think plenty about how place is communicated. I thought Charles Frazier with Cold Mountain did with vernacular and description something that rang true. Michael Connelly has written passages with Harry Bosch in particular at night driving through LA that I think get at place and the character in a moment in time. I reread Derek Raymond.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I’d split up the year and live half of it where the Milky Way is that stunning ropy white at night, and that half in two, one in the mountains, one near a warm ocean. And the other half of the year in a city through two seasons, and one of them isn’t winter and probably would migrate around the world to places I’ve always hoped to see. I don’t know of any great cities in winter and it’s never good to always be a visitor, so in that mix would have to be some familiarity. I like to walk. I’d want walking cities.
What’s next for you?
I’m well into a novel that starts at the edge of the Presidio in San Francisco. The Spanish built a fort there at the mouth of the bay in 1776. They were worried about competition coming in from the ocean but should have kept a closer eye on those colonists on the other side of the continent who put together a Declaration of Independence that same year.
Kirk, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime. Good luck with your new series.
For more information on Kirk Russell, visit his homepage.