Trouble No More by Court Haslett

Small crime fiction presses like prequels, at least two of the publishers I enjoy do. 280 Steps published Eric Beetner’s Rumrunners (review) back in May 2015. They followed with Beetner’s prequel Leadfoot (review) in November 2016. There’s also Chris Rhatigan’s A Pack of Lies published by All Due Respect Books in November 2014 which was followed by Rhatigan’s prequel Squeeze published in April 2016, both reviewed here. And now we have Court Haslett’s Trouble No More (280 Steps) which is a prequel to his book Tenderloin (280 Steps) (review) which was published earlier this year. I’m not saying this is a trend of any sort, but I  find it an interesting coincidence probably only because I have reviewed all six books.

The book at hand is Haslett’s Trouble No More which takes place in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district the year before Haslett’s Tenderloin. The narrator in both books is Sleeper Hayes, a man who thinks all problems can be better solved with alcohol and if that doesn’t work then you haven’t drunk enough alcohol to attack that particular issue.

Trouble No More gets started as one of Sleeper’s tenants gets beaten up by some Chinese mobsters because her brother has skipped out of town owing a bookie money. Sleeper is the manager of a small apartment building and since it’s the Tenderloin upkeep on the building is not much, so Sleeper has free time. He’s sort of a neighborhood PI who subsists on gambling, alcohol, music and pot, the order of which depends on the moment.

Haslett’s novels are set in ’77 and ’78, and pop culture references are scattered subtlety throughout. Whether it is Jim Jones, the demise of the hippie movement, or Elvis, their existence within the novel come naturally from the characters rather than forced by the writer.

It wouldn’t have bolstered my tough-guy bona fides to tell him I’d spent hours pinpointing the exact dividing line between soft rock and soul music. That song is “Loving You” by Minnie Ripperton. I think it belongs on the soul side of the line. Maggie disagreed. Any song with birds chirping, she argued, deserves to be played in an elevator. I reconsidered briefly until Nelson weighed in on my side, definitively settling the issue. “Why, who do you listen to, tough guy?” I asked.

Sleeper might be an unofficial PI, but the mystery of the book is a backdrop character development. Haslett’s writing has made Sleeper, who is the narrator of the novel, exist outside the pages. Sleeper is a loner not by choice, he does yearn for human connection, he realizes that he probably is not the best companion for anyone other than Johnnie Walker.

Enlisting their help was the least I owed Maggie after neglecting to tell her about Ryan with the strippers. I rationalized my silence a number of ways— that it wasn’t my business, that men will be men, that Ryan might have been telling the truth, that Maggie had ordered me out of her life. Any of them worked at the time because they all contained an element of truth. None of them worked now.

The real reason I didn’t tell her was that I didn’t want to bring any more pain into her life. I’d done enough of that when we were married. No example is more excruciating than our final break-up. It was August 8th, 1974. I wish I remembered the date because I was the romantic type. The truth is I remember it because it’s the day Nixon resigned from office. She had noticed a lump in her chest the week before and I was supposed to meet her at the doctor’s office.

The good news: it was only a cyst.

The bad news: I didn’t show.

I told her I got caught up in the Nixon thing, that I knew the lump was no big deal, and look I was right! I didn’t expect that to fly and it didn’t. Instead of acting like a man and ending the marriage when I knew it was broken, I forced her to be the bad guy. Like always, she complied.

I needed a strong jolt to clear my head of this memory. I went back to the Nite Cap, the place where I last saw Ryan, and ordered a Johnny Red on the rocks with chaser of Johnny Red on the rocks.

Trouble No More is quite funny too, but not in a slapstick or overly comedic way, the humor effortlessly comes through the characters and situations.

“Meet me over here at Central Station in an hour and I’ll take a walk around the block with you. I’m pretty sure I’m not the guy you want to talk to, though.”

“Better than nothing.”

“Don’t be so sure, hombre,” he said and hung up.

I immediately committed myself to start calling people hombre.

Like writers who often believe that the last thing they wrote is their best work, readers have a similar problem — at least I do. Trouble No More is better than Tenderloin which I enjoyed the hell out of. I now know that Court Haslett is a damn fine writer and that I will read anything by him in the future.

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Tenderloin by Court Haslett

 The 70s was a strange decade. Maybe no stranger than other decades but any journey from the 60s counter culture to the decade of Reagan and Thatcher would surely rank high as one of the most bizarre decades in human history.

Court Haslett’s Tenderloin (280 Steps) takes place in San Francisco during the Summer of 1978. Yeah, we are knee-deep in the 70s, but life is much different than you imagine as Haslett’s outstanding novel in San Francisco neighborhood, the Tenderloin. Here is the novel’s main character describing the T.L., as the locals call it:

Archie made me consider the Tenderloin. The T.L. was always the place where San Francisco’s outcasts gathered. Criminals, ex-cons, alcoholics, hookers, castoffs, hard-luck cases, and straight-up weirdos. These people were my people. People with unfixable flaws who, more often than not, lose whatever battles they’re fighting.

But the T.L. wasn’t only a wasteland of losers. It was also a place to have some fun. The neon lights of the Tenderloin’s hotels and bars were as recognizable to locals as the Golden Gate Bridge. The Black Hawk Lounge on Hyde and Turk used to host all the jazz greats, from Billie Holiday to Johnny Mathis to Charlie Parker; Polo’s and Original Joe’s still served food with style; and whatever your sexual proclivities and predilections, the Tenderloin had a bar for you.

Lately, though, the T.L. was becoming a touch more desperate, a bit more violent. Every year a few more homeless panhandled, a few more murders occurred, and a few more dope fiends overdosed. The fun was slowly seeping out, and more and more I found myself looking over my shoulder when I heard footsteps behind me late at night.

Haslett’s novel follows Sleeper Hayes, a man who lives and thrives in the T.L., not as a criminal, but as a gambler, drunk, a caretaker, and a friend to many, well, except for maybe the cops considering one of them wants Hayes dead. A few chapters in, one of Hayes’ friends is murdered and Hayes starts looking into the death for a T.L. john.

Simon sized me up. “Alright. Let me know what you learn,” he said, slapping a $100 bill on the bar. “Remember,” he whispered, “I’m your first call.”

Uh oh. When a pimp gives you money it can mean one of two things: you’re either the john or you’re turning the trick. Either way, somebody is getting screwed.

As the reader experiences the T.L. with Hayes, we also get to know Haslett’s other dynamic characters who live on society’s periphery, some by choice and others by need. Haslett’s writing makes these characters much more than bums, drunks, prostitutes and drug addicts. Consider Nelson, a “crippled, dope-smoking guru of a best friend”, who lives in Hayes’ apartment building.

Nelson was always my sounding board when life became overwhelming. Years of nearly constant smoking had slowed and slurred his speech. Some people mistook this for a slowness of the mind. It’s true that Nelson’s logic wasn’t always straightforward, nor his delivery articulate, but his take on any topic was always unexpected and enlightening.

I knew his counsel wasn’t for everyone, though. If you’re the conventional type, then his steadfast belief in sterilizing the very rich and the very poor wouldn’t spin your top. Nor would you believe his claim that he and Yuri wrote the outline for the SALT treaty. But if you were looking for weed, a fresh opinion, and a laugh, like I always seemed to be, then Nelson was your guy. I considered him my personal, stoned, black Buddha.

Not only does Haslett’s story have a detailed and almost character-like affection for the Tenderloin, the Peoples Temple also has deep roots in the novel just as it did in San Francisco politics in the 70s. Haslett does not bog us down with a boring history of the cult, his writing about its leader Jim Jones becomes an intrinsic part of the story. Tenderloin is as dark as the alleys of the neighborhood and as glorious as the City by the Bay itself.

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