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
Coggins, ’79, MS ’88, has created four novels about
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
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
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
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,
There’s always the possibility that
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.”