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Robin E. Levin, San Francisco Author


This book brought to mind one of my Grandfather’s witticisms: “He lived the life of Riley, ‘til Riley come home.”

Leo Bacigalupi is a widowed alcoholic coroner on his last professional legs in San Francisco. He is clearly in decline, dreading the up-coming performance review, after which he will no doubt be turned out to pasture.

A call comes in the wee hours of the morning. It’s Wilson, the diener at the morgue. A man has apparently been the victim of a hit-and- run accident at Hill and Sanchez streets and Dr. Bacigalupi is called upon to examine the body.

There is something strange about the corpse. The man does not seem to be injured severely enough to have died from the trauma. His eyes have not glazed over and seem to hold Dr. Bacigalupi in his gaze. His glasses, which should have fallen off his face, are still there.

Nevertheless, in Dr. Bacigalupi’s experienced perception, the man is dead.

This is a John Doe, thought to be homeless. There is no identification. Is the death a hit and run homicide? A suicide? A “bum bashing”? The result of a fall caused by lack of balance or a seizure?

The police thought that the man was a homeless vagrant, but Dr. Bacigalupi knew better. The man’s blood test revealed a glucose level of over 600, and a cursory examination of the body revealed that he routinely used an insulin pump. A homeless person would not have an insulin pump.

An e-mail in the man’s pocket reveals that he was in a relationship with a woman whose name began with C. Dr. Bacigalupi is determined to find out who the dead man was and locate the lover so he can bring the matter to a close. Wilson, the diener, gets a fingerprint match to a man named Charles Barlow, and Dr. Bacigalupi makes a visit to the scene of the accident and finds a medic alert bracelet which, upon calling the number listed on it yields the decedent’s address on Liberty street.

Using a house key found in the dead man’s pocket, Dr. Bacigalupi enters the man’s home and begins to investigate the man’s life. There is plenty of material since, it seems, the man was a journalist and filled binder after binder with details of his life. All of this is beyond the call of duty, and, perhaps, a voyeurism beyond the bounds of decency but Dr. Bacigalupi has become a man obsessed.

Over the course of the book, the writings of the deceased reveal more and more details of the dead man’s life and of the his relationship with the mysterious C. Meanwhile, the good doctor’s physical and mental states rapidly deteriorate. He suffers from a painful tooth abscess, a bad knee and other creeping infirmities of age. Alcohol dulls the pain. At one point he is attacked and beaten by upper-class suburban thugs, saved only by the intervention of Rollie, a vigorous black street person. Nevertheless, he persists doggedly in his quest to unravel the dead man’s mysteries.

Barlow, it seems, has a fascinating medical history as well as a fascinating life story. In his 20s he developed brittle diabetes. Twenty years later he developed a brain tumor necessitating brain surgery. Initially thought to be a deadly glioma, the tumor turned out to be a lymphoma, treatable with radiation and chemotherapy. He had survived it, but survival had its price.

Karl Schoenberger’s book is complex, variegated and absorbing. It is a combination of a forensic mystery and a compelling love story.