As the city of San Francisco gets ready to direct some good-natured hate against their loathed baseball rival Dodgers during a three-game series with their beloved Giants, a different kind of hate is stalking the city’s Mission District.
In a senseless act of seemingly random violence, Officer Hugh Patterson is brutally gunned down at the end of his shift while standing outside a taqueria watching the game on the TV inside through the window. His partner, who had stepped away to make a phone call, gets to the scene too late—too late to save Patterson’s life, and too late to even see the perp, let alone apprehend him.
Though the city bands together to express their shock and outrage, turing Patterson into a modern-day folk hero in the process, few leads appear in the crime’s immediate aftermath. But as a reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer grows in the following days, an eyewitness comes forward.
Fifteen-year-old Oscar Flores lives in an apartment across the street from where Patterson was gunned down. An avid Giants fan, he was in his room watching the game when the crime occurred and claims to have seen the entire thing while looking out the window between innings. It seems like the break the police need to solve the crime, and so you think you know exactly where the narrative’s going as it rounds third and heads for home. But as author Tom Pitts has demonstrated time and again, he’s a master at putting his characters in a moral pickle.
Knuckleball is a baseball story in only the very loosest sense. Though the taut ninety-five page novella unfolds over the course of a handful of days during a series between the Giants and Dodgers, the heart that drives Knuckleball is the relationships: between Patterson and the people of his Mission District beat; between Patterson and his partner, Vince Alvarez; between Alvarez and the detectives investigating Patterson’s murder; between young Oscar and his sadistic older brother, Ramon; between the old-school melting pot residents of The Mission and the young, urban professionals gentrifying their neighborhood; and between everyone involved and their consciences.
A lifelong resident of San Francisco, Tom Pitts crafts a backdrop so vibrant and alive the reader truly feels as though he’s right there walking the beat with Patterson, seeing the sights and smelling the aromas of the 24th Street Corridor, feeling the pain and outrage of the city in the wake of his brutal murder. Pitts does so, however, without even the hint of a wasted word. Though his writing has always had a no-frills, stripped down quality to it, Pitts has continued to refine his voice and style with each offering, as demonstrated in the progression from Piggyback to Hustle and now Knuckleball.
Pitts truly has a gift for stripping away all the pretension and romanticism that too often accompanies harder-edged crime fiction these days, and the rhythm and conversational tone of the prose brings to mind the style of greats like Elmore Leonard, wherein the characters live and operate on the gritty edges of morality. Pitts embodies Leonard’s most important rule of writing: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” There is nothing about Knuckleball that “sounds like writing.” The storytelling hits hard, while managing to put a sympathetic, human face on even the most grim of circumstances.
In Knuckleball, Pitts takes his characters down the darkest of paths, and dares the reader to come along.
Knuckleball is available from One Eye Press (ISBN: 978-0692370773).