Owen Hill, longtime bookseller at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, will read from his new humorous detective novel about the Berkeley adventures of Clay Blackburn, book scout and private eye, The Incredible Double (P.M. Press), for the reading series he established and continues to run at Moe’s. Summer Brenner will also read from her latest, I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex.
“Summer and I read together on tour,” Hill said, “Five readings in New York City. We come off as a team. She writes hardhitting noir; mine’s full of jokes.”
Hill’s detective fiction comes from the building he lives in, around the corner from Moe’s, on Dwight Way, the Chandler Apartments, also the title of his first novel, published in 2002 and now out of print.
“It’s a grand old building,” said Hill, “And would work well in a mystery, I thought. It became a kind of joke. I’d always written poetry. On a whim, when I was laid up, I started The Chandler Apartments. I must’ve joked around enough. I’d always been a mystery fan, knew the form as a reader; there’s a lot of pulp in my library. I stole from [poet] Jack Spicer’s Tower of Babel the idea of using the detective novel to poke fun at the poets in your circle. The Chandler Apartments is full of poets. In a bland world, poets are still kind of nutty. I respect them for it.”
Asked to give a thumbnail description of the story, Hill said, “With a short book—The Incredible Double is 140 pages—it’s hard to give a reading without giving the plot away! Clay Blackburn’s a book scout and poet at the end of his scouting run. It’s harder and harder to make a living as a scout, so he falls into detecting. Through some weird fluke, he’s hired to find a Berkeley nut who threatened a CEO, whose security forces don’t know how to penetrate the Telegraph Avenue underground.
Questioned about that impenetrable underground, which swirls outside Moe’s front window, Hill replied, “It’s as I’d like it to be. There’s not much of a Bohemia anymore, in this country at least. But there is in my novel.”
Pressed about Berkeley locations in the book, Hill cautiously answered, “Moe’s is in it a lot, of course, where Clay sells his books; a couple of my coworkers get to have cameos. There’s a kidnapping in Elephant Pharmacy—gone now. Clay likes to drink at Cesar’s; he meets his love interest there. My car mechanic, from Pete’s Automotive, happens to drink at Cesar’s, too, so another cameo.”
“It’s kind of a Berkeley thing,” Hill added, “An auto mechanic with an advanced degree. The overeducated underachiever. A friend’s plumber is a marine biologist! Such a beautiful part of Berkeley, which makes conversations so interesting. It doesn’t happen everywhere.”
Hill himself hails from Southern California, “Torrance, the suburbs, till 20, 21, then to Santa Cruz. I was heading for college, but dropped out. I did a stint as ice cream maker at Polar Bear, pre-Haagen-Daaz gourmet ice cream, then got a job as a buyer at Logos Books on the Mall. Then came to San Francisco, worked at Columbus Books, after Discovery Books went out of business there, near City Lights. Then did a stint at Shakespeare & Co. while I argued my way into Moe’s—‘Moe, I could buy for you...’ ‘No, no...’ Finally, he gave in.”
Moe gave in in 1986. Reflecting on almost a quarter century on the Avenue, Hill said, “It’s been a long ride, but it’s home. It’s the best bookstore I was ever in. Moe took care of his employees, and that’s still happening, post-Moe. It’s a little oasis.”
Expanding on the theme, Hill said, “I’ve always really liked public life, bookstores and cafes as the place to make a living. There’s a constant flow of characters.”
The reading series at Moe’s “started very informally, then snowballed. So many other bookstores were dropping off; we became the premiere reading series in the East Bay—readings once, twice, three times in a week. But it began almost by accident. There was a little garden area behind Moe’s we don’t use anymore. [Poets] Clark Coolidge, Michael McClure, Nanos Valaoritis were all friendly customers, shopping the poetry section. I said, Why not come outside? That was 1999. Then we came back in, later got a microphone ... Now I’ve invited myself to read in my own series. And I accepted.”
Bookseller, “curator” of the poetry section at Moe’s, himself a poet, detective novelist and humorist ... “I’m happy to be in the middle of it. Coming from the suburbs, I’ve been running away from blandness my whole life. Berkeley isn’t bland.”
Owen Hill and Summer Brenner, 7:30 p.m. at Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Avenue. Free admission. 510-849-2087.