Book Review: “The Commissions” by Paul Madonna

Author/artist, Paul Madonna has become something of a cult figure in San Francisco’s Italian-American neighborhood of North Beach. His latest effort, “The Commissions,” has been flying off the shelves of Telegraph Hill Bookstore (also known as Libreria Pino to cognoscenti) where we purchased a copy.

But this latest edition of the “Emit Hopper Mystery Series,” does not focus on one small corner of the City alone. Indeed, it is a sprawling Joycean work that examines even the obscure outer reaches of our metropolitan network extending as far south as Bay Area backwaters like Burlingame and as far north as Stinson Beach.

This is a cold case about the murder of Hopper’s bosom buddy, private detective Ronnie Gilbert. While the killer had been acquitted, an investigation is renewed when phantoms from the past emerge at the hip and progressive laundromat owned (but not run) by the protagonist.

The city of San Francisco figures as major character in the plot, with scores of architectural sketches illustrating the narrative. Anyone who has lived here, or spent an extended visit, will recognize the threads keeping the story together.

There are even a few brief sojourns to Amsterdam when the plot needs advancing. It is here that Hopper first realizes that living beneath sea level can lead to crippling despair and suicidal impulses.

Of all fiction’s classic detectives, the mystery genre shaped by Madonna now has a rare if not a previously unheard of character.

Emit Hopper is a painter waiting to be discovered, who has been something of  rock star in his youth, later a celebrated novelist abd museum artist and finally, a laundromat innovator as he was exploring the role of accidental detective. In this the third installment of the series, we have a story that seems to leap from the newspaper headlines …if that tabloid is the National Enquirer.

While working on a set of commission drawings in the 1990s, Hopper is wrongly arrested. A young woman from his bohemian rock-and-roll past appears and, along with a renegade San Francisco detective, lures the washed-up artist into a blackmail scheme involving spooky surveillance rooms dating back to the CIA’s Cold War-era. (Hello, Rome Daily American!)

For today’s readers of The American, the most intriguing character will be Francesca, a thirty five-year-old woman of Chinese ethnicity, fluent in Italian and master of Italy’s culinary arts. Her account of dark dealings in the mystery might be the red herring which turns “murderer to martyr.”

In the author’s afterword, Madonna notes that taking on commissions was a major plotline to his own professional life:

“Invitations to draw have taken me all over the world and introduced met to countless people I would never have otherwise met,” he says.

As a consequence, this award-winning illustrator and writer has found a unique blend of drawing and storytelling that has been heralded as an “all new art form.”