Volume 11, No. 2, Summer 1995
by Catherine A. Accardi (Walnut Creek, CA)
It was a dark and foggy night, that evening of my
birth in San Francisco. The year was 1949 and, until 1992, it was the
only city in which I had lived. No, don't worry, this isn't my
autobiography. It's just an intro into my San Francisco mysteries
article. The point being that I really did leave my heart in San
Francisco when I moved to Walnut Creek several years ago. Some of my
favorite mysteries are set in The Cool Gray City. It is with this
serious sentimental penchant for San Francisco that I recently began
collecting San Francisco mystery books, concentrating on those
written before the 1950s.
The following books are noteworthy San Francisco mysteries.
Many a Monster by Robert Finnegan (Simon & Schuster,
A fiend is on the loose. Still timely twist regarding the murderer's
identity and sex in the end.
Siren in the Night by Leslie Ford (Charles Scribner's Sons,
San Francisco high society becomes suspect in a murder of one of
The Case of the Substitute Face by Erle Stanley Gardner
Perry Mason become involved in a murder aboard a ship crossing the
Pacific from Hawaii and solves the case in San Francisco.
House of Evil by Clayre and Michael Lipman (Lyon, 1954)
On the surface, he seemed like such a nice young man, but underneath
lurked a lunatic.
House on Telegraph Hill by Dana Lyons
This book was written in the 1940s but I have not been able to find a
copy despite a desperate search. The movie version of this book,
starring William Lundigan, Valentina Cortesa and Richard Basehart,
was filmed in 1951 all over Telegraph Hill and North Beach with some
great scenes of The City as it was. It is a wonderfully moody story
about a woman immigrant freed from a German concentration camp who
takes up another woman's identity.
Dark Passage by David Goods (Julian Messner, 1946)
Yes, Sir/Madam, this is the book on which the classic movie was based.
Principal characters in the movie are Vincent Perry and Irene Janney,
played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Vincent Perry is
escaping from San Quentin where he was incarcerated for the murder of
his wife, a murder he did not commit. Along comes Irene in her car,
ready to hide him in her San Francisco apartment. She had been
following his case and believed him innocent. Perry undergoes plastic
surgery and changes his identity, intent on finding the murderer of
his wife. He is successful in finding the murderer but remains wanted
by the police, unable to prove his innocence. Having fallen in love
with Irene, it appears their only recourse if to leave the country
and they agree to meet in Peru.
The movie keeps close to the book with only two significant
departures. Irene's apartment in the book is in an unidentified
building somewhere on Geary Street while in the movie the apartment
is 1360 Montgomery Street at the Filbert steps, across from the
Shadows Restaurant under the shadow of Coit Tower. The building still
exists, still an attractive structure with a current tenant
displaying a life-sized cardboard likeness of Bogart in the
apartment's window. Also, the movie is kinder as it ends with a scene
of Bogart and Bacall meeting in a nightclub in Peru. The book ends
with a phone conversation during which they agree to meet in Peru
someday. Although the book is good, the movie is better as it brings
the written word vividly to life with scenes of The City, the Golden
Gate Bridge and dark passages.
Foghorns by Howard Pease (Doubleday, Doran & Company,
Is this vintage San Francisco or what? In the first paragraph, "San
Francisco was smothered in fog. Against the windows of the Seaman's
Hiring Hall the mist swirled in eddies so dense that young Greg
Richards, peering down into the gloom, could barely make out the
waterfront street below." San Francisco's world-famous waterfront is
the scene. The story is centered on a young Sacramento college
student and his desire to ship out of the port of San Francisco
during the time of labor troubles with longshoremen vs. sailors vs.
shipping companies. The story takes place in the San Francisco of the
1930s, when San Francisco was still the major west coast working
port, before it was replaced by the tasteless tourist shops and
Inexperienced with the swarthy and devious ways of some sailors,
Greg's overwhelming desire to ship out leads him to use his last dime
and, unknowingly, illegally buy a "blue card" belonging to another
sailor. This card will entitle him to a position as ordinary seaman
on the freighter S. S. Araby. This innocent but careless behavior
plunges him into trouble. His crusty shipmates are suspicious of this
young whipper-snapper. When a number of suspicious on-board fires
threaten the ship and it's cargo, Greg befriends the Captain and
becomes involved in murder and mayhem. In a midnight taxicab ride
along the Embarcadero, chasing after the villain, Greg could see
"above the buildings the enormous Oakland Bridge extending out across
the Embarcadero and disappearing in to the fog over the bay. Walking
in the shadow of such a colossal structure made him feel suddenly
small and insignificant."
Thunderbolt House by Howard Pease (Doubleday, 1943)
I was about 12 when I first read Thunderbolt House. Mr. Pease
wrote books for young adults but any romantic adult like myself would
still be charmed by this book. After reading it 35 years ago, I
reluctantly returned the book to the San Francisco Main Library.
Years later, I craved reading it again, only to find it under lock
and key in a rare book cabinet in the same library. After an
exhaustive search for my own copy, it is now under glass in my own
collection of rare San Francisco historiana.
Thunderbolt House takes place in 1906 San Francisco where
the young hero of the book, Judson Allen, uncovers a dark family
secret involving his wealthy great uncle known as Thunderbolt Judson.
When old Thunderbolt died, everybody called Judson's family the lucky
Allens. They inherited his fortune and his San Francisco mansion at
Bush and Leavenworth on Nob Hill. (Of course, I went there just in
case the dark foreboding mansion really existed even after the 1906
earthquake and fire, but, alas, all I found were post-earthquake
apartment buildings.) Unpleasant events began from the very first day
the Allen family arrived from Stockton on a ferry boat across the
bay. The book presents a picturesque description of San Francisco of
the 1900s, including a cable car ride from the Ferry Building through
the fog on the hills of The City.
Judson discovers a secret about the mansion's great library and a
blood stain on the ballroom floor and is just about to solve the
family mystery when the 1906 earthquake shatters San Francisco and
the Allen family. The account of the historic fire and earthquake is
vivid. The book gives a colorful recount of the Barbary Coast, the
City of Paris and other long-lost San Francisco treasures.
And Turned to Clay by Lenore Glen Offord (Jarrolds
Lenore Glen Offord was, at one time, the mystery reviewer for The San
Francisco Chronicle with a column titled "The Gorey Road." I believe
this would have been in the 1970s. I have made desperate attempts to
locate two of her other San Francisco mysteries, The Glass
Mask and true crime The Girl in the Belfry, but to no
And Turned to Clay is set in post-W.W. II San Francisco
and in it, heroine Noel Bruce is a hostess at the Servicemen's Art
Center. Her involvement in a murder mystery begins at the Center and
takes her into the lives of art students studying at the Sharwin
School in North Beach. The body in the mystery was discovered under
the molded clay of a life-size sculpture. Stinky. So who killed Mr.
Dead Center by Mary Collins (Charles Scribner, 1943)
Dead Center takes place at 706 Montgomery, and Collins does
weave the ambiance of San Francisco into her story. I bought the 1946
Dell paperback edition with a drawing of 706 Montgomery on the inside
cover and the description reads, "the disreputable old building at
706 Montgomery turned out to be a perfect hangout not only for
artists and writers but also for murder." Currently there is no such
address. It would have been across the street from Melvin Belli's
offices in the middle of what was, in the 1800s and early 1900s, the
infamous Barbary Coast.
The heroine is Janet Keith. From a wealthy family, she finds it
difficult to write in her family's sterile Pacific Heights mansion so
she moves into 706. Although a rich man's daughter, Keith is accepted
and well-liked until she discovers the mutilated body of one other
friend in the artist's workroom. Tormented by the horror of the
crime, she is driven to uncovering the identity of the murderer and,
in the process, upsets the secret lives of her fellow artists. Their
neighborhood hangouts include the Montgomery Block Building,
originally, during the 1800s, the first office complex in California
and in later years, it included a hangout for Bohemians (remember
them before the Hippies!), finally to be demolished as the site of
the Transamerica Pyramid. Progress. Collins makes a good contrast
between he lives of North Beach artists vs. the wealthy Pacific
Heights community of Janet's parents.
32 Cadillacs by Joe Gores (Warner Books, 1993)
Joe Gores is a modern mystery master. 32 Cadillacs is
entertaining, very funny, without sacrificing character development
and plot detail. The private eye firm of Daniel Kearney Associates is
employed to figure out the connection between disappearing cadillacs
in San Francisco and a nationwide network of Gypsies. Colorful
characters (to say the least) have a marvelous backdrop with the
hard, corrupt, violent San Francisco of the 1990s.
On the far side of Russian Hill, Larry Ballard and
Patrick Michael O'Bannon were getting into the elevator at the
Montana, a high-rise co-op overlooking bowl-shaped Aquatic park from
the foot of Polk Street. The site had been zoned low-rise until
certain of the City's key officials had found their Christmas
stockings stuffed with -- miracle of miracles! -- foreign vacations
and new cars and fur coats for their wives. Subsequently -- another
miracle! the Montana Development Corporation had been granted the
supposedly impossible building code variances it sought.
This book tells it like it is. Gores isn't shy speaking through
his characters like Giselle Marc, Trinidad Morales and Ephren Poteet.
Even the cadillacs take on a life, especially the 1958 pink El Dorado
convertible. It doesn't get much better than this.
Hammett by Joe Gores (Harper & Row, 1975)
Now, for one of the very best by Joe Gores. Hammett presents
the reader with an evocative picture of San Francisco in 1928, with
its beauty, corruption, dirty cops and politicians. Gores mixes fact
and fiction with this portrait of Samuel Dashiell Hammett, private
eye turned writer. In the novel, Hammett avenges the gruesome murder
of his friends and attempts to rid The City of corruption. We are
taken through those infamous dark, foggy alleys, through Chinatown,
the cathouses, the gambling dens. Gores writes:
Wind-driven fog lanced through Hammett's topcoat as he
swings off the trolley on Presidio Avenue. He stood staring through
ornate wrought-iron gates: the fog hid the rolling green acres of
Laurel Hill Cemetery.
The cemetery is long gone from this once beautiful wind swept hill
with thrilling views of downtown San Francisco and the Bay beyond. A
modern office complex, housing a portion of the University of
California campus, sits on the site of the cemetery. Previous to the
University, the complex housed the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company.
Years of writing may have dulled Hammett's senses, writes Gores,
but in a starkly realistic portrayal of the seedier side of San
Francisco, he brings about a bittersweet version of justice. The
surprise ending adds a forlorn twist. This book is part fictionalized
history, part biography, and very engrossing. Gores probes the moody
man who wrote classics like The Maltese Falcon.
Dashiell Hammett lived in San Francisco from between 1921 and
1929. He wrote a number of his best works while living in The City,
including a number of Continental Op stories, The Big
Knockover, The Dain Curse, Red Harvest, and The
Maltese Falcon. Addresses where Hammett lives in San Francisco
lived include 620 Eddy Street, 20 Monroe Street, 891 Post Street and
1155 Leavenworth Street. With the exception of Red Harvest,
all of the above are set in San Francisco. The flavor of San
Francisco (as it was) is evident in Hammett's tales. The Continental
Op and Sam Spade were born in San Francisco. He used the urban fabric
of The City to color the stories and his characters are gritty and
soiled by their harsh lives.
The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett (Alfred A. Knopf,
"The Big Knockover" first appeared in Black
Mask in February 1927. The Continental Op winds through the
streets of San Francisco, telling his story of 150 crooks organized
to carry out a double bank robbery. The genius who masterminds this
feat is named Papadopoulos. After the big job is done, he begins to
kill off those who want a share of the take. In the last paragraphs,
the Op finds out that, although several of the bad guys are now
history, the "brains of the push got away. Now I could turn The City
upside down for him." "$106,000 Blood Money" (Black Mask, May,
1927) is the hunt for Papadopoulos.
The Creeping Siamese by Dashiell Hammett (Dell, 1951)
Hammett wrote a number of Continental Op short stories while living
in San Francisco. The Creeping Siamese is a short story
collection, and in it appears "The Creeping Siamese" (first
serialized in Black Mask in March, 1926). The introduction to
the collection is by Erle Stanley Gardner who is quoted as saying: "I
think of all the early pulp writers who contributed to the new form
of the detective story, the word 'genius' was more nearly applicable
to Hammett than any of the rest."
"The Creeping Siamese" begins with the Op standing in the San
Francisco offices of Continental Detective Agency when a man walks in
and then falls over dead, stabbed in the breast. The wound is stuffed
with a piece of red silk sarong. Sleuthing takes the Op to 1856
Broadway, site of an attempted burglary and the occupants say it was
an attempt by "four brown men" the call the Creeping Siamese. The
murder and burglary are connected. By the way, 1856 Broadway does not
exist as that street number would put it somewhere in the Bay.
Included in this collection is "The Nails in Mr. Cayterer"
(originally appears in Black Mask, January, 1926). The offices
of Hopkin F. Cayterer are in 1021 Seamen's Bank Building, San
Francisco. Mr. Cayterer is the victim of a swindle with foreign
overtones as suggested by the arrival of a mysterious letter with a
Japanese stamp and a Kobe postmark. However, the Op discovers that
the culprit is very close to home in a nearby dark alley.
"The Joke on Eloise Morey" (Brief Stories, June, 1923) is
in this collection. Mean old Eloise continues to ridicule and
belittle her poor husband Dudley. He has taken all he can and commits
suicide, leaving behind a very sad letter which Eloise destroys in a
rage. Oh well, she should not have done that...
In "Tom, Dick or Harry", the Continental Detective Agency
investigates a jewel robbery, interviewing the victims in their home,
and comes up with five possible scenarios to this crime.
The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett (Spivak, 1945)
This is a four short story collection and in my 1946 Dell paperback
edition, a map of downtown San Francisco is depicted on the outer
rear cover. It has a legend and numbered locations indicating the
locations referred to in the stories. A nice touch. It has an
introduction by Ellery Queen which states: "Meet the detective
without a name... meet another of Dashiell Hammett's wild men from
Frisco (author's note: ouch!)... meet the Continental Op."
In "The Fly Paper" (originally published in Black Mask in
August 1929), wealthy Major Waldo Hambleton goes to the Continental
Detective Agency's New York office, asking to have an eye kept on his
daughter Sue. Sue disappears, and a year later, Hambleton receives a
telegram from the daughter living at 601 Eddis Street in San
Francisco. (Could this be 601 Ellis Street? Currently, 601 Ellis is
the site of the Phoenix Hotel.) Enter San Francisco's Continental Op.
He is put on the case to arrange for the daughter's return home.
However, the daughter dies. The question is who poisoned her? When
fly paper is found in her kitchen, the Op asks a suspect where one
could buy the paper. The suspect replies: "Nobody uses fly paper here
in San Francisco, anyway. There aren't enough flies."
In "Death on Pine," another of the four short stories, Mrs.
Gilmore wants the Op to find her husband's murderer. Mr. Gilmore was
shot on Pine Street and the murder was caused by a jealous triangle.
The real Hall of Justice is mentioned in this story. The real one was
on Kearney Street, across from Portsmouth Square, where the Chinatown
Holiday Inn now ruins the cityscape. The story ends with the Op
walking "up through Portsmouth Square toward a restaurant where the
steaks come thick." Definitely the good old days.
Another short story, "Zig Zags of Treachery" (first appeared in
Black Mask on March 1, 1924), takes the reader to the
Montgomery Hotel, Union Square and the St. Francis taxi stand. Dr.
Esteps dies after a visit by his first wife. Suspects range from the
first and second wives to the doctor's business associates. The
mystery is solved when a letter the doctor wrote just before he died
All the Continental Op stories are authentic, hard, street dirty,
no frills tales.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (Alfred A. Knopf,
The Maltese Falcon was serialized in Black Mask,
September through December, 1929 and January, 1930, and appeared in
book form in 1930 from Alfred A. Knopf. In The Maltese Falcon,
Brigid O'Shaughnessy comes to Spade and Archer under the guise of
finding her sister but the double-crossing dame's real intentions are
to use the two dicks to find the priceless artifact. When Spade's
partner, Miles Archer, is shot, Spade pulls himself out of bed in his
apartment at Geary and Hyde to inspect the murder scene at Burritt
Alley. A plaque now marks this spot at the alley overlooking the
Stockton Tunnel. It reads: "On approximately this spot Miles Archer,
partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy."
Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping
downhill to Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab. San
Francisco's night-fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the
That's my kind of town!
Fending off sweet-smelling Joel Cairo and "the fat man" Gutman,
Spade allows himself to be tempted by Brigid's charms. In the end he
accepts the fact that she is a murderess. The Falcon in the novel
turns out to be a worthless imitation, perhaps the symbol of greed.
Several times Spade refers to San Francisco as "my city" and
Hammett experts suggest that a number of San Francisco locations in
the novel are actually existing buildings. The Cathedral Apartments,
home to Brigid, could be the Coronet at 1201 California Street. The
Spade and Archer offices could be in the 111 Sutter building.
Gutman's rooms in the Alexandria are thought to be in the Sir Francis
Drake. Joel Cairo's Belvedere Hotel could be the Bellevue, and the
theater tickets he carried in his wallet were for a play at the Geary
Sam Spade frequented John's Grill at 63 Ellis Street. Opened in
1908, this great landmark restaurant still serves the Sam Spade
special meal: chops with baked potato and sliced tomatoes. The even
serve a drink call the Bloody Brigid. John's Grill has an upstairs
Dashiell Hammett room with original editions of his novels under
glass and a number of photographed scenes from the Maltese Falcon
hanging on the walls. It is usually quiet and dark in this room. I
keep hoping I will turn around one day and find Sam Spade eating his
meal, looking at me with a glint in his eye -- "Here's looking at
you, kid." Yes, I know, that was a different movie...
For 16 years, I've been writing detective novels set
in San Francisco. When I was trying to sell the first one, Grave
Error, everyone in New York who saw it -- agents, editors,
and the like -- told me that while I had a way with words, the
mystery genre was dead so if I wanted to be published, I should toss
the manuscript in the trash and write science fiction or fantasy. As
every mystery reader knows, the "experts" could not have been more
wrong -- the mystery business is booming. More than a thousand are
published each year and the mystery section is by far the busiest in
most libraries, with the exception of the "how to" books.
I decided to set my detective novels in San Francisco because at
the time I began writing, it was the only urban area I knew well.
Since the modern private detective is in effect an urban cowboy, I
didn't have much choice of where to put my hero.
I'd first gone West (from Midwest) in 1964, to attend law school
at U. C. Berkeley. Drafted just after graduation, I returned to
California after basic training to serve a year at Ft. Ord, on the
Monterey Peninsula. Despite my ambivalence about my military
experience, I enjoyed the area so much that I returned in 1970, to
practice law in Monterey. After three years of practice on the
peninsula, and three more in San Francisco, I was more than eager to
abandon the law and try my hand at writing fiction. What I hoped to
do was write about the Bay Area in the way Ross Macdonald wrote about
My detective is named John Marshall Tanner (John Marshall after
America's first Chief Justice; Tanner for reasons of euphony and
because I once played for a basketball coach of that name). Tanner
lives on the south side of Telegraph Hill and works above an antique
store on Hotaling Place. He eats breakfast at Zorba's and drinks
whiskey at Guido's, both in North Beach and both fictitious
establishments. He has a buddy who's a cop and one who's a
stockbroker. The most important woman in his life has been Peggy
Nettleton, his former secretary, but she left town after becoming
entwined in a sexual harassment case (Toll Call, 1987) and
won't reappear until next year (Flesh Wounds, 1996).
I've written about a variety of subjects over the years: radical
politics (Death Bed); legal insanity (Beyond Blame);
libel in fiction (Book Case); corporate chicanery (Blood
Type); and racism (Southern Cross). Although his home has
always been San Francisco, Tanner has ventured to Berkeley (Beyond
Blame), to Iowa (Fatal Obsession), and even to South
Carolina (Southern Cross). The next time out he will visit
Seattle (Flesh Wounds).
Like me, my detective is a former lawyer. He stopped practicing
after the legal system drove one of his clients to suicide and Tanner
was jailed for contempt for insulting the judge who let it happen.
Unlike me, Tanner is not getting older -- he has been pushing 50 for
fifteen years. When I started writing, he was a veteran of the Korean
War; now he is a veteran of Vietnam. He used to be older than I was
and I had to guess at his state of mind. Now he is younger, so I know
exactly what's bothering him. (What's been bothering him for the last
three books is a mid-life crisis brought on by a combination of age,
depression, career shortcomings, and an unfulfilling personal life.
But I think he's finally coming out of it.)
My most recent novel, False Conception, had its genesis in
an article in California Lawyer magazine on the subject of
surrogate motherhood. At one point, the author observed that at the
time of its birth, a child born of a surrogate mother can have six
different parents. Six parents equals six suspects in my line of
work, so I seized on the subject as a milieu for mystery in keeping
with my interest in addressing realistic social issues in my work. It
was particularly appropriate also because in recent years I have
sought alternatives to murder as the moral and emotional engine for
my novels, and a struggle over the fate of an unborn child seemed to
suffice as a substitute. The focus in False Conception also
allowed me to enlarge Tanner's emotional horizons in ways that will
be expanded in future books.
In False Conception, Tanner is hired to investigate the
lifestyle of a proposed surrogate mother to make sure she has no bad
habits that might endanger the fetus. Tanner gives her a clean bill
of health, the embryo is implanted, and Tanner believes the case is
closed. A month later, he is asked to check her out once more, to
make sure nothing has changed, and he reports the status remains quo.
A short time later, the surrogate disappears.
The contracting parents are dismayed and the lawyer who hired
Tanner to clear the surrogate is outraged; Tanner is directed to find
the woman. He learns that the arrangement with the surrogate had
several unusual aspects and she might have reason to terminate the
pregnancy in order to thwart the hopes of the parents. Others have
conflicting interests in the child; feuds and frustrations from the
past play a part as well. When the surrogate is finally found, more
It's not clear what lies in store for Tanner in the future, but
the ten novels that comprise his history have been both a challenge
and a source of satisfaction for me. Tanner has been, in Chandler's
phrase, a man "fit for adventure." He has also been, in important
respects, my teacher. I owe him a great deal for what he has let me