The Southside Sleuth 

Berkeley eccentrics animate Owen Hill's mysteries.

Clay Blackburn gets to prowl around strangers' houses and peek into their lives. He does this under the auspices of not just one but two different occupations: Blackburn, the bisexual Berkeley-based protagonist in a series of mysteries by poet/novelist Owen Hill, is a book scout: That is, he browses yard sales, estate sales, and other venues seeking secondhand volumes that he can sell for a profit. But he's also a private eye: very private, in that "I barely qualify. I don't have a license, don't carry a gun," Blackburn muses when about to meet a prospective client at the start of Hill's latest book, The Incredible Double. Books are his main gig. "But sometimes I take these jobs."

The job driving this novel, which Hill will discuss at Moe's Books (2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley) on Monday, June 15, starts when a drugstore-chain magnate claims he's been getting snail-mail death threats with a Berkeley postmark and hires Blackburn to scope out their source. This magnate, whose not-so-subtle-reference surname is Wally, "looked like Ross Perot, but with hair. ... Soap-opera hair, silver and sprayed." Sure, he's got his own crack security detail: "Gleaned from the Special Forces, mostly. ... They captured Saddam, for heaven's sake," Wally boasts. But "Berkeley isn't Iraq," so he wants Blackburn, who knows this turf — because "Berkeley gives 'behind enemy lines' new meaning."

That's the first measure of a maze along which Blackburn hurtles with his trusty clutch of Berkeley regulars: a conspiracy theorist, an eloquent ex-druggie, and his best pal Marvin, whom he calls "my own personal Jiminy Cricket. ... He's an unrepentant Communist, but it's easier for him. He owns his house."

Blackburn's bisexuality is remarkably rare in fiction. "Until recently," Hill says, "the 'bi' part of the gay-bi-transgendered coalition wasn't there. I had an agent tell me, 'There's a niche for gay, but not for this.' But I'm optimistic. Remember, Gore Vidal once said, 'Everyone is bisexual.' I like those demographics."

Writing about book scouting is easy for Hill, who has worked at Moe's for many years. He regularly assesses deceased persons' libraries that are offered up for sale by surviving relatives.

"Most people don't really know what their books are worth. They think they have 'rare' first editions." When they're wrong, "I try to let people down easy." When he does make a buy, "sometimes I feel like the smiling undertaker."

On the night of his reading, he'll share the mic with Summer Brenner, whose novel I-5 is, like Hill's, new from Berkeley-based PM Press.

Although his eccentric characters are admittedly often based on real people, he says he's had "no complaints so far. When I use real names, it's out of respect — Edward Dorn, Joanne Kyger. The scenes I'm documenting are full of these offbeat, interesting characters. Sometimes it feels like fish in a barrel. Any given day at Moe's I see enough characters to make up a novel." 7:30 p.m., free. MoesBooks.com

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