Shelter-in-place provided prolific Sonoma County author Jonah Raskin ample time to conclude his murder mystery trilogy starring private investigator Tioga Vignetta. Loyal readers will enjoy getting to know familiar characters more deeply, however, this first-time reader had no trouble diving into Dark Past, Dark Future without having read the first two books.
Raskin’s book is set in and around Sonoma Valley, full of recognizable locales even if most are given fictional names. Though based in the present-day, it feels a bit outside of time. Its protagonist, Vignetta—lover of noir—is, herself, outside of time, a bit like Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe. Vignetta doesn’t stumble or mumble in bewilderment around 2020 the way Gould’s Marlowe does the early 1970s, but her world seems to feel more cinematic to her than to others in it. Her behavior can be anachronistic. She prints out a hard copy of an address instead of referencing it on her smartphone. When we hear her inner thoughts, they have a rawness and humor different from her quips in conversation.
“Fuck anxiety,” Vignetta thinks as she drives past vineyards on her way home, where she’ll discover someone has broken in. And then, “Fuck grapes.” Later on, the same veraison she felt disdain for lifts her mood. Raskin, who is from the East Coast, has lived in Sonoma County for much of his adult life. One senses his fondness, frustration and fascination with the region throughout Dark Past, Dark Future.
Raskin has published 15 books, ranging from academic nonfiction to poetry and memoir. Followers of his work will recognize common themes—marijuana, the wine industry, far-left politics and Jack London all make appearances.
It’s clear Raskin enjoys genre fiction and hardboiled crime—he turns the Valley into a stylish milieu of sex, drugs and blackmail, which makes the book a breeze to read. Yet there are moments where the style gives way to harder grit. Raskin’s foreword explains that domestic violence and sexual assaults against women have reached epic proportions in the 21st century, exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s both sobering and dread-inducing to read this note, knowing the protagonist will face such trauma. Raskin, who knows when to be serious, handles the scene in graphic detail, but thankfully spends more time on Vignetta’s recovery.
The author says he is too attached to Tioga to let go of her completely, but that this is the last we’ll hear of her for a while. He’s already completed his next novel, featuring a different protagonist. It’s set in San Francisco in the 1950s.
“Dark Past, Dark Future” is available from Santa Rosa’s McCaa Books. — C.R. Griffith