Peter Kageyama’s debut novel is a noir mystery
He’s known as the author of For the Love of Cities and Love Where You Live, nonfiction books that examine the symbiotic relationships between Americans and the places they inhabit, but longtime St. Petersburg resident Peter Kageyama now has another title: Novelist.
“It was a confluence of timing and opportunity,” Kageyama says. “And I guess I was ready to actually try something a little different.”
Hunters Point, published today by St. Petersburg Press, is a radical 180 from Kageyama’s other works – set in 1958 San Francisco, it’s a noir-like thriller about a tough private detective, Katsuhiro “Kats” Takemoto, investigating a land-development deal that stinks to high heaven, and leads him into dark, dangerous, occasionally violent territory.
The story is fiction, although it has many roots in reality – Hunters Point really was an active naval base on the San Francisco Bay, and it really did leech radioactive material into the surrounding substrate in the 1950s.
Once he decided to set his story in that city, in that era, Kageyama focused his research: What else was going on then, in that town where Tony Bennett left his heart?
“Kats” Takemoto’s work takes him deep into the heart of San Francisco’s Beat poetry community, where he meets Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao, manager of the legendary City Lights bookstore. All people who actually lived.
They all play a part in the story; Shig is even one of the major characters.
Alfred Hitchcock’s stylish thriller Vertigo, filmed in San Francisco, was released that year. James Stewart plays a private eye who becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman.
In the book, Stewart had hired Kats to coach him in detective-speak; they became fast friends, and Stewart himself then becomes a peripheral part of the mystery.
The genesis of Hunters Point, Kageyama explains, was Daniel James Brown’s Facing the Mountain, about the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Peter’s own father, Paul Kageyama, was sent to a Utah internment camp with his family in 1942, at age 15.
“History, nonfiction … and it read like a novel,” raves Kageyama about the book. “It was just this amazing chronicle about things that happened to my dad’s generation – that he never talked about with me.
“And a major part of the book was about the 442nd, the regimental combat team that still is the most decorated unit in U.S. Army history. Japanese Americans who fought the Nazis; the all-Nisei Brigade. I was like, ‘I wonder what happened to a lot of those guys?’” (Nisei refers to American-born children of Japanese descent.)
The book’s hero – a muscled veteran of the 442nd – was named for Kats Miho, a real member of the heroic brigade. Kageyama says he simply liked the name.
In the book, Kats’ middle name is Paul. “He’s the superhero version of my father, I guess.”
Tart-tongued Molly Hayes, “a redheaded Irish woman from Ohio,” becomes Kats’ partner, both personally and professionally. She’s based on Peter Kageyama’s mother Molly, the real redheaded Irish woman from Ohio who married Paul Kageyama.
“She didn’t have quite the sailor’s mouth that I wanted to give Molly, but she was absolutely feisty and funny like that.”
Kageyama didn’t start with an outline, preferring to let the story meander in whatever direction it wanted. “Having never gone down this road before, I was very linear in my approach,” he says. “I started with the first chapter and it flowed from there. I was about three chapters in when I showed it to my wife, and she said ‘This is good!’ She had read Facing the Mountain as well, and she was very encouraging.”
Hunters Point thrusts Kats, Molly and their friends into harm’s way time and again, from a plot cooked up by testy Mafioso to a clandestine government conspiracy, from roughnecks who don’t like gays to snobby socialites who have a problem with white women dating Asian men.
Kageyama reports he’s already halfway through a sequel to Hunters Point – featuring the same protagonists in a new adventure.
“I love writing about these characters – Katz and Molly and Shig Murao – he was a real person, an incredibly important part of that scene, even though he wasn’t a writer or a poet, but he was one of those people that help connect other people. And I think that’s of value.
“And as a city guy, I talk about the importance of community. Well, community is not just about the big, obvious movers and shakers – community is often about those unsung, falling slightly below the radar kind of people who we know actually make our places better for it.”
Hunters Point is available at Tombolo Books, via Amazon and via St. Petersburg Press.
The author will discuss his work Tuesday, Jan. 31 at Tombolo Books. Information is here.