“Killer Weed,” an innocuous murder mystery set in present-day San Francisco, may hold the distinction of being the first entry in the classic genre to revolve around cannabis culture. While it never quite works as a murder mystery, the novel nevertheless dishes up plenty of entertainment for cannabis connoisseurs.
One of the novel’s strongest qualities is its confident sense of setting. The story involves parallel murders, both occurring in Golden Gate Park but separated by 45 intervening years. Castleman nimbly jumps between the supposed golden age of 1960s Haight-Ashbury and the same dynamic city as it reels from dotcom booms and global recessions in the drab 21st century. Both periods are depicted with a firm, authentic script and a genuine poignancy is created by contrasts between the idealist 60s and the 21st century malaise which set in as too many residents realized they had leveraged too much, becoming trapped by their patina portfolios.
Castleman singles out in particular the “Foghorn,” a thinly-disguised San Francisco Chronicle, which leaves many honest reporters and contributors hung out to dry as it begins to deal with the inevitable consequences of a transforming industry.
The canny cannabis community (especially those who know San Francisco culture) will giggle at a generous spread of inside jokes, starting with the name of the historian-turnedreporter- turned-gumshoe (“Ed Rosenberg”) and extending with the running gag of reimagining what the classic booze-addled noir PI archetype would look like had he turned to weed instead. Even more amusing is the character of the unfortunate murder victim Dave Hirsch, a flamingly sexual Dennis Peron type whose spectacular rise in San Francisco politics under the coat tails of cannabis reform provides a good-natured condemnation of Bay Area culture in general.
Hirsch is the second of the two Golden Gate victims; the earlier victim, Jackie Zarella, who apparently fell in with The Wrong People, met a similar fate in almost the same spot over four decades earlier. Naturally, the reader realizes the two murders are Somehow Related long before the Ph.D. protagonist does. Also naturally, the reader slogs through anyway; this is the formula, after all. When the connection is finally revealed, the twist is not really all that surprising: anyone who has read more than a handful of murder mysteries should be able to spot the connection early.
Yet the novel’s other virtues compensate for this flaw. In Ed Rosenberg, Castleman has created a fully fleshed-out character who embodies many of the same foibles and self-doubt as any classic noir detective from Marlowe to The Dude; pulling no punches, the confident author dares to depict in Rosenberg a nuanced picture of cannabis dependence which exhorts the downsides of chronic use even while truthfully relating its relatively benign nature. A clever subplot compares cannabis to alcohol in the form of two intimate characters – Ed smokes too much pot, his wife Julie drinks too much wine, both remain essentially functional – and culminates in a satisfying climax. Another subplot, involving the couple’s fourth-grade daughter who takes on a research paper into the risks of cannabis use as a school project, serves as a Trojan Horse for a raft of new scientific data. At one point, Ed Rosenberg uses medical marijuana to reveal a crucial plot twist, in an inspired repudiation to the DEA’s “no medical value” claim.
Playful and self-aware, “Killer Weed” offers an authentic look into a critical time and place in American history while generating real pathos in the form of well textured characters. Twist it up and smoke it.
First appeared in Issue 8 of Cannabis Now Magazine.
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