San Francisco, San Fran! What location, what bridge, what history of crime and vice. From the legendary wild Red Light district on the Barbary Coast, born out of the California Gold Rush in 1849, to today’s Silicon Valley, born entrepreneurship and hi-tech skills (along with a bit of debt ugggery and corporate shenanigans of course). San Francisco has survived earthquakes, fires and epidemics. It has been a city of almost constant physical, social and political rupture. It’s a liminal city – as far as you can go on the American mainland before it becomes Asia. A country that started in the East ends up in the West, largely in San Francisco. For those on the run, all too often, it’s the end of the line. And if you like your noir hard-boiled, foggy and rainy, San Fran is the city for you too.
Of course, there’s no escaping Dashiell Hammett in San Francisco more than you can dodge Raymond Chandler down in California’s second major city. Hammett started in the East, went west as Pinkerton and ended up thanks to a dose of the Spanish flu first in Tacoma recovery and then in San Francisco. The city runs through his fiction as Brighton through rock. His second novel with his nameless Continental Up character, Dain the curse (1928) takes place in San Francisco – murder, robbery, the rich, a religious cult and some morphine, although it has a surprisingly positive ending. Hammett quickly healed of this weakness (for a hard-boiled ‘man with a gun’ writer) and Sam Spade entered the American criminal writing of the Hall of Fame (though such a thing does not actually exist – yet!) The Maltese falcon (1930). Sam is not such a nice guy (his shock over his partner Archer’s death at the beginning of The Maltese falcon is tempered by the fact that he slept with his wife) and although he may eventually have some sort of moral code, he is not exactly Mr. Empathy. Sam Spade – hard-boiled and San Fran to the core, just like at this point his creator. According to Hammett expert and the man who has traced so many of Hammett’s actual locations in San Francisco that were used in his novels, Bob Cromwell, most of The Maltese falcon was written from 891 Post Street, where today there is a plaque commemorating the author on the wall.
It will be debated for years, but for many crime fans, hard-boiled noir begins with Hammett on the streets of San Francisco. Do not believe me? Then listen to the other great challenger, Raymond Chandler himself: ‘Hammett was the performer of essence, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories about Hemingway. Still, all I know is that Hemingway may have learned something from Hammett … He was extra, sparse, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do. He wrote scenes that never seemed to have been written before. ‘
Sam Spade (and you really can not help but see Bogart) only with Falcon and four short stories by Hammett. Joe Gores Spade and Archer (2009) dates back to 1921, before the events of The Maltese falcon to describe how Sam Spade set up his own agency and spent half a dozen years in San Francisco dealing with booze runners, thugs by the water, on-boarders, bank scammers, gold smugglers, bumbling officers, other men’s mistresses and long lack of money just before that. the fateful day “Miss Wonderley”, also known as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, enters the Spade and Archer offices.
But we can not spend the whole article talking Hammett – there is more to San Francisco criminal writing than just him and Sam Spade.
The high life of the 1920s San Francisco ban is captured in Laurie R King’s five-book Kate Martinelli series. Martinelli works for the San Francisco Police Department as a homicide inspector. Artists, homeless children, a gay church and a lost Sherlock Holmes manuscript can be found in the first book in the series A serious talent (1993). Throughout the rest of the series, almost every iconic place in San Fran – trolley buses, hillside houses and the famous hotels – are all equipped.
The war came and went and post-war in the 1950s, it seemed that the fog, rain and intoxication from the Embarcadero just kept going on. Later, we saw a couple of PIs go to wartime San Fran. Bad butterfly (2012) sees Stuart Kaminsky’s longtime Hollywood rubber shoe Toby Peter’s change scene (in his fifteenth book) and travels north in 1942, where despite Pearl Harbor, the San Francisco Opera plans to continue production of Madama butterfly. But there are plenty who do not want the show and they may be willing to commit murder to stop singers on stage.
Charles Willeford was locked up in a sneaky hotel in San Francisco in the early 1950s while on leave from the Army when he wrote Wild wives (1956), an amoral, sexy and brutal noir with the crooked detective Jacob C. Blake mixed with a beautiful but seemingly insane wife of a socially prominent San Francisco architect. Willeford is better known for his Chandleresque Hoke Moseley series, however Wild wives is a hard-boiled reading. Malinda Lo’s Last night at the Telegraph Club (2021) is a neo-noir in 1950s San Fran Chinatown with Red-Scare paranoia that threatens Chinese society. Against that background, Lily Hu fell for Kathleen Miller the moment they met under the flashing neon sign at a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club. The novel is a lovingly recreated 1950s San Francisco full of historical detail and suspense.
The created McCarthyite 50s made room for the liberated sixties, and few cities in the world embraced this ethos and fresh breath more than San Francisco. Easy Rawlins is on his way back to LA, but decides to check out San Francisco this summer of love in book 10 of Walter Mosley’s series Cinnamon kiss (2005). Easy’s friend PI Saul Lynx arranges him with some work in San Fran on the trail of a wealthy and eccentric lawyer and the lawyer’s exotic lover, a girl known as Cinnamon, who has disappeared. Summer of love perhaps, but also the summer against anti-war protests and a growing awareness of civil rights.
Getting more updated Michael Nava’s gay Mexican-American lawyer Henry Rios has been the subject of eight novels now. The first, The little death (1986), sees Rios drawn into the murder of a wealthy man, while another, Cut into bones (2019) which weaves the gripping story of two gay men against the backdrop of the 1980s San Francisco and the AIDS tsunami. Not all of the Henry Rios books are in San Francisco, but it’s a series worth reading.
There are many, many more crime novels in San Francisco, but space precludes them all being performed. Finally, we must finally mention the 12-year-old detective Isabel “Izzy” Spellman, who works for the family business Spellman Investigations and has been described as part Nancy Drew and part Dirty Harry (of course, no stranger to San Francisco). Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files The (2007) series has plenty of fans, and although your tastes run to the more hard-boiled ones, you might see why if you try one. Fortunately, Spellman’s in San Francisco has a detective agency, as their first major case is the kidnapping of Izzy’s sister, 14-year-old Rae Spellman. The Spellman series includes Spellman’s revenge (2009), Spellmans strikes again (2010), Traces of spellmans (2012) and The last word, also released as The next generation (2013). They are hard to resist.
So much of the ethos of the hard-boiled writing of San Francisco in the 1920s and 1930s contained criminal attempts to defraud millionaires, steal undeserved income, and highlighted the vast difference in wealth between the mansions of Nob Hill and the flop houses of Embarcadero. It’s impossible to imagine in today’s San Francisco of old townhouses picking up multi-million dollar price tags, lots of homelessness as opposed to Silicon Valley’s wealth and privilege that San Francisco’s modern crop of criminal writers will struggle to find a new hard-boiled style. to the city’s literary production. And of course it’s already happening in the new hi-tech San Fran …
Then finally, Leonard Chang’s Allen Choice trilogy jumps back and forth between San Francisco and LA. In book one of the series, Over the shoulder (2001), we meet the Korean-American Allen Choice, who works as a security specialist for leaders in Silicon Valley. When Choice’s partner is killed on the job, he begins investigating with an inexperienced Bay Area reporter, Linda Maldonado, only to discover that the killing may be linked to Allen’s father’s mysterious death about twenty years earlier. The second book in the series, Underkill (2003), takes place mainly in LA, but Choice returns to San Francisco in the last book in the series, Dishes for Clear (2004). A great series, now destined for a TV show and in a world where money, power and often the evil ones have drawn towards Silicon Valley.