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knuckleball200Written by Tom Pitts — After last year’s triumphant novel, Hustle, San Francisco native Tom Pitts returns with another hard hitting report from the city’s mean streets. Knuckleball is a novella published by American indie One Eye Press, which was already very much on my radar after publishing Chris Leek’s western revenge story Gospel of the Bullet.

The story plays out in San Francisco’s Mission district over a few days in the spring. The Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team are in town for a series against the Giants and the whole city seems infected with excitement, hence the baseball reference in the title. Local rivalry is in full effect and liquor stores have ‘Beat LA’ signs in their windows and street vendors are doing good business with ‘F*ck LA’ t-shirts.

Hugh Patterson is a beat cop in the Mission, and once a week makes a point of getting out of his prowl car and actually walking the beat. He comes from as family of cops, in fact it’s a calling to him, and he strongly believes to be a community police officer he has to get out of his car and mix with the community. If he can make eye contact with these people, if he can talk to them, they will come to trust him. His partner Vince Alvarez doesn’t agree and thinks Patterson is too much of a soft touch, and is putting both their lives at risk.

Alvarez might have been right, because one day Patterson is shot in broad daylight. The killer finishes Patterson off like an executioner with a head shot as the officer lies bleeding out on the pavement. The murder happens off the page with Alvarez in the dark since he had stepped away from his partner, against departmental regulations, to make a private call.

There are witnesses to the shooting, but both may be unreliable. Bobby Reese is an unemployed alcoholic who at best can only give a generic description of a young Latino man running from the scene. The large reward that has been put up may be influencing his memory. The other witness, Oscar Flores, is a young student who can put a name to the face, but he has his own deeply personal reasons for coming forward, which cast a doubt on the reliability of his testimony.

This short novella only takes a couple of hours to read and divulging what happens next risks spoiling it for you. I will say that this is certainly not a who-done-it, and as ever Pitts is more interested in his characters than in the crime. Mainly it is a study of guilt. Alvarez feels guilty about abandoning his partner just to check up on his spouse, and Flores feels guilty about a choice he has made. What is remarkable is how Pitts is able to introduce characters you care about and have them work through complicated moral dilemmas in such a short piece. It makes the wait for his next novel even more difficult to bear.

Knuckleball is released on 24 March.

One Eye Press

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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