Riley Kovachs

Created by Gordon DeMarco

This series reads like Sam Spade, but with Hammett’s political anger jammed right in your face.

And I mean right in your face.

If you’re leaning to the left and just biding time, waiting for the revolution, RILEY KOVACHS is worth checking out. He works the politically-charged mean streets of Hammett’s city by the bay, and his cases invariably find him sniffing around the labour movement of the thirties through the fifties.

Like a politicized Nate Heller or a sort of a retro-Dan Fortune, author DeMarco manages to bring a P.I. slant to historical events. And he seems to share Toby Peters’ almost Gumpian penchant for running into celebrities and other well-knowns of the era, including Charlie Chaplin, Dalton Trumbo, Frances Farmer, Richard Nixon and Satchel Paige.

I found the series both entertaining and overblown, overwritten and overly preachy. The preachiness itself probably would have gone down easier if the politics weren’t rammed down our throats by the overblown Chandlerisms that seem to pop up every paragraph or two. I mean, “I stopped and sniffed the night. Murder was in the air. I could smell it.”

Or this alternative classic:

“The ashtray at his elbow had more butts in it than the chorus line at Radio City Music Hall.”


Fortunately, DeMarco’s heart seemed to be in the right place, because I remember I eventually tracked down and read them all, and recall thinking DeMarco had gotten better. Or maybe I had just become immune to the author’s raised-fist prose style. It’s hard to tell—it looks like the books went through several different publishers—at one point put out by the UK’s lefty-leaning Pluto Press—possibly reprinted out of order, and possibly re-edited. Without the actual books in hand, it’s difficult to tell the publishing date of any of them, with multiple publication dates offered for all of them online.

But it looked like DeMarco had got the hang of it. I found Riley a likable guy, a self-confessed “small-change dick, a baseball buff who genuinely liked people, and wanted to help, even if he did wear his politics a little too proudly on his sleeve. Give him a Chesterfield to smoke and a cup of scorch to gripe about and he’s ready to go off at tilt at a few windmills.

He came about his politics naturally, too, working in the tire plants back home in Akron and on the docks in San Francisco before becoming a gumshoe.

Another reason I wish the series had been continued is the fact that deep down, I figure DeMarco had a pretty good sense of humour. Tell the truth, who’d a thunk any character outside of a JAMES BOND novel–or a typesetter’s fantasy–would be called Helvitica Bolde?

And, amidst all the over-boiled tuffdick-speak, DeMarco] did come up with at least one classic film noir/femme fatale line in October Heat: “It was easier to kiss Lana Birdwell than to trust her.” (October Heat).

I think I dated Lana once…


Beats me. He wrote the Riley Kovachs books, which were laced with labor and radical themes and set in California, and another, 1988’s Murder at the Fringe, about semi-retired San Francisco gumshoe Rocco Conigliaro, on vacation in Edinburgh, who gets dragged into the murder investigation of a leftist playwright.



  • “The Five Pin Stands Alone” (1993, Red Handed)


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Big Al Hubin for the hot tip on the first.

Leave a Reply