WRITERS ISSUE With its vast divide between the rich and poor, its lusty appetite for sex, and its backroom real estate deals, it would seem that even the boutique and completely gentrified San Francisco of today offers to writers of crime fiction a rich vein of noir opportunity. Yet the lone novelist today determinedly probing the dark side of San Francisco’s endless battle to clean up the streets is Peter Plate. His latest novel, Elegy Written on a Crowded Street (Seven Stories Press, 176 pages, $13.95), is Plate’s ninth in a hardboiled writing career that spans the era of out of control gentrification in San Francisco. With little fanfare or support, against the real life backdrop of police sweeps of the homeless and the start of the dot com boom, Plate has produced a shelf of books that represent a lonely, yet noble and deeply radical literary effort to write noir crime fiction in which not the cops but the criminals are the protagonists.
Plate’s novels are full of delicious hooks. They reliably begin with some of the best premises in noir fiction today. Fogtown (Seven Stories Press, 2004) opens as a crowd of Market Street homeless and down and outers witness the crash of an armored Brinks truck at dawn that temporarily fills the desolate street with crisp, new hundred dollar bills. In Police and Thieves (Seven Stories Press, 1999), Doojie, a small-time Capp Street weed dealer, accidently witnesses the murder of a homeless man by a police officer and spends the rest of the book on the run from the murderous cop who seeks to silence him.
Like Doojie, Plate’s characters are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, unwilling spectators as the city changes around them. The free money in Fogtown offers the Market Street dwellers a tantalizing glimpse of the kind of new carefree life being lived all around them by the rich who have newly arrived to the city. Yet, like the upscale new eateries and clubs popping up everywhere, the money is off limits to them, and those who take the money instantly become, like Doojie, hunted by police. Plate’s strength is in conveying the hopelessness and despair of lone characters pitted in Doestoyevskian battle with societal forces far greater than they are. As they are slowly ground down by this struggle, we feel their terror, incomprehension and paranoia. As the drug dealer and SRO hotel manager, Jeeter, says in Fogtown, “Rights? You don’t have any rights. You have choices. That’s all you have. And you made the wrong one.”
In this context, noir fiction for Plate is protest fiction. A longtime street activist, Plate writes with the gut instincts of a protester, taking his novels right to the barricades where different visions of San Francisco violently clash. One Foot Off The Gutter (Incommunicado, 1995), is a mordant postcard from a Mission District just about to enter its gentrification era in which a homeless cop, a Latino gang member, and a yuppie doctor all covet the same Victorian houses at 21st Street and Folsom. Soon The Rest Will Fall (Seven Stories, 2006) is set in the Trinity Plaza Apartments on Market Street at the height of housing activists’ struggle to save the low income housing from demolition. Plate has so reliably found the pulse of change in the city that at times his work has blurred tragically with reality. Police and Thieves ends with a fire at the Crown Hotel on Valencia Street. Just months after the book’s publication, the real life Crown Hotel burned to the ground.