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“Misdemeanor Man” By Dylan Schaffer Bloomsbury, $23.95 The modern detective novel rose out of a primordial pool of trashy pulp paperbacks. While many of the same characteristics remained — leggy blondes, random violence and hard whiskey — the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler pushed the genre toward literary acceptance. With the elevation of dismissed forms into art — much the same way the films “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential” did with Hollywood’s library of pulpish films noir — our expectations have also been raised. Not Dylan Schaffer’s. He’s wading back into the pool, and he’s taking us along for the ride. The protagonist in Schaffer’s maiden novel, “Misdemeanor Man,” is a balding, beleaguered, wisecracking defense attorney working in the low-responsibility, low-stress misdemeanor unit of the Santa Rita, Calif. public defender’s office. And Gordon Seegerman — the frontman in a Barry Manilow cover band — is exactly where he wants to be, until events push him out of the doldrums. Schaffer’s tableau is the criminal justice system. That most detective stories end where courts enter the picture — the murder is solved, the client is cleared and charges are about to be filed — bothers Schaffer not a bit. His mystery unfolds alongside a criminal case, here involving a man who is accused of flashing an 8-year-old girl, but proclaims his innocence. When a witness turns up dead, the plot is set in motion. Despite his own instincts to extricate himself from an increasingly complicated (and therefore burdensome) situation, Seegerman laces up his gumshoes. The book’s motley crew is part of its appeal. It’s populated with transvestite prostitutes, ravenous lesbians, dirty cops, meth-heads and an Indian keyboard player who just wants to sing the songs the whole world sings. It’s all in good fun. Like pulp novels of the past, Schaffer’s primary goal is to entertain, but he never sinks so low as to appeal to base instincts — well, except for that fascination with Barry Manilow. (It’s a trait the author shares with Seegerman, incidentally.) Beneath the jokes, a sense of decay pervades the bottom-feeding Seegerman’s life. Santa Rita is based loosely on Oakland, Calif. Seegerman has no ambition and no companionship, other than his band and a father who is slowly losing his mind. He is also haunted by the likelihood that he will come down with his father’s Alzheimer’s condition. Schaffer says he has never tried a case in his life, but he evidently achieved some command of them through the appellate process — Schaffer works with renowned appellate specialist Dennis Riordan and pitched in on the San Francisco dog mauling, Billionaire Boys Club and the repressed-memory murder cases. Law-minded readers will appreciate Schaffer’s nuanced view of the criminal justice system. It’s as if John Grisham understood the legal system — how it really works — and had a sense of humor. But it may be too much detail for the average reader. Some of the fun for the local legal crowd will come in trying to pick out which characters, if any, are based on real-life Bay Area legal figures. Schaffer says he used composites, which is probably why some characters strike an awfully familiar note. Seegerman’s Generation X weariness, and his cynicism about the legal process, drape the text. He describes judges based on how biased they are toward the prosecution. One judge tries to maneuver his way into a suddenly high-profile case. And like any good detective caper, ulterior motives abound. Schaffer can turn a phrase, writing with quick, truncated sentences that seem like dime-store novel parodies but do help move the reader along. The book never gets heavy, never takes itself too seriously. (Nor does Schaffer — his first published work was a coffee table book about dogs that asks the critical question: “What would a dog say if a dog could talk?”) “Misdemeanor Man” was shopped for a year before being published, but the energetic lawyer has already finished a draft of a sequel. He may now turn to a third. The writing is not exactly Pulitzer-worthy, but one suspects that Schaffer aims low on purpose. Describing a woman’s bottom as two water balloons filled to the bursting points, for example, is not exactly the literary heir to Chandler’s description of a blonde who could “make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” But it does have its moments:
Although we are a city of more than a million people, larger by a third than San Francisco, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation; although it is our harbor where the trucks, from Tulsa and Tucson, wait for DVD players and cell phones shipped from Asia; and although our football and baseball and basketball teams are world-class, because we are a black city, a yellow city, a brown city, because we are a murderous city, and because we are a poor city, we are forever viewed by the rest of the world as in decline. We are not even a suburb. We are a national symbol of failure. I wouldn’t think of living anywhere else.

All in all, a fun read, especially for those who work within the Santa Rita criminal justice systems of the world.

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