A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Techie and the Detective

Mark Coggins is a technophile whose hero is a technophobe -- San Francisco private eye August Riordan, who has appeared in four novels (so far) that Coggins wrote in his off-hours from his day job as a computer engineer and high-tech company executive.

This is my brief profile of Coggins, which recently appeared in Stanford Magazine:

Mark Coggins had a eureka moment—a career-defining experience, as it turned out—in his freshman creative writing class. To demonstrate prose style, professor Tobias Wolff read aloud the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Coggins, “enraptured,” went out to read all the Chandler he could find—and followed up with Wolff’s suggestion that he also check out Dashiell Hammett.


Coggins, ’79, MS ’88, has created four novels about San Francisco private detective August Riordan, the most recent of which is Runoff (Bleak House Books). Riordan was born in another Stanford creative writing class, taught by Stegner fellow Ron Hansen. Coggins wrote a short story centering on Riordan, “There’s No Such Thing as Private Eyes,” that Hansen encouraged him to try to publish. It eventually appeared in The New Black Mask, a quarterly anthology of detective fiction.

Coggins’s undergraduate degree was in international relations, with a
specialty in Soviet studies. He developed an interest in computers and went to work for Hewlett-Packard after getting his master’s. He kept up his writing, however, and began another story that became his first novel, The Immortal Game (Poltroon Press, 1999).

Like most computer people in Silicon Valley, Coggins has moved from company to company, and now is senior vice president for engineering at Actuate in San Mateo. His day jobs inspired a second August Riordan mystery, Vulture Capital (Poltroon Press), published in 2002. Candy From Strangers (Bleak House) followed in 2006.

Coggins admits that he had Clint Eastwood, a jazz aficionado, in mind when he created Riordan, who is, he says, something of a “throwback”—a jazz bassist who drives a battered Ford Galaxie 500 and is a hard-core technophobe. (Until Runoff, Riordan could not even be persuaded to carry a cell phone.) Riordan prowls the noir San Francisco turf that was once the province of Hammett’s Sam Spade. The Flood building, where Riordan has his office, once housed the Pinkerton Agency where Hammett worked as a detective.

But if Spade is the archetypal hard-boiled detective, Riordan is only medium-boiled. “He’s not as competent as Spade, or as successful, or as smooth,” Coggins says. Riordan’s closest sidekick, Chris Duckworth, is a cross-dressing gay man who has the computer skills Riordan lacks. One doubts that Spade, who notoriously roughed up Joel Cairo and Wilmer the gunsel, would approve of Chris.

In Runoff, Riordan investigates a case of election fraud in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Like all the Riordan tales, it’s packed with local color—which Coggins, a photographer, illustrates in black and white. Each novel has a slide show of his deftly atmospheric photographs of San Francisco and Bay Area places where the stories occur. They can be seen on his Web site, www.immortalgame.com.

Runoff centers on the rigging of electronic voting machines. To get the details right, Coggins consulted Stanford computer science professor David L. Dill, an expert on voting technology. Riordan also consults a Stanford professor in Runoff, but Coggins insists the character in the book isn’t modeled on Dill: “It’s actually me—a self-portrait.”

Coggins has tried out another character, Vic Lane, in a story set in 1920s San Francisco that was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He likes the period setting and sees the potential for a novel about Lane. But Riordan seems likely to live on, too. Coggins, negotiating a two-book contract with his publisher, is working on The Dead Beat Scroll, in which Riordan investigates the theft of a hitherto unknown manuscript by Jack Kerouac.

There’s always the possibility that Hollywood will come calling—again. The Immortal Game was optioned for the movies, and a screenplay was written, but the project never came to fulfillment. Coggins says the producers of the would-be film had suggested Riordan be played by Jeff Goldblum, Chris Noth or—the choice favored by Coggins’s wife, Linda Zhou—Denis Leary.

Coggins wryly notes that not all of his experiences in Stanford’s creative writing classes were as fruitful as those with Wolff and Hansen. In one class, he developed a crush on the instructor. “A lot of my stories for her class were thinly veiled fantasies about me and her. She never said anything about it in our story conferences.” When the instructor’s next novel appeared, he says, “I bought it. There’s a character in it, a lecherous professor, and his name is Coggins. I guess that was her revenge.”