With the closure at the end of this month of The San Francisco Mystery Bookstore (as reported here) I thought I would dedicate a post this week to that fine city in Northern California where, once upon a time, I used to visit a very good friend of mine. I did a lot of growing up there in the 80s and 90s and also bought a lot of great mystery books.
I haven’t been there in over a decade now but along with its undoubtedly beautiful setting on the Bay, the vibrancy of its culture (and counter-culture) and of course the wonderful food, fascinating people and amazing architecture, the potential for squalor and seediness seemed often remarkably ever-present to me as a European tourist, requiring little more than a short step in the ‘wrong’ direction – especially before the regeneration of SOMA. This mixture of high and low culture, of beauty and darkness, have made it the perfect setting for all kinds of mysteries, from the misanthropic romance of Hitckcock’s Vertigo to the hard- and soft-boiled worlds of Hammett found in the gritty adventures of Sam Spade and upper class sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. In some ways the most valuable works here for me are those by Bill Pronzini and the late Joe Gores, who use the city and its environs as the backdrop for so much of their work. They offer a particularly fascinating and diverse look at a city and how it has changed over the decades.
Limiting this list to just 10 inevitably meant plumping for some personal favourites and some unavoidable but great, even classic, books that somehow you just can’t do without. So, for today, these are my top mystery books set in and about San Francisco, still beautiful and mysterious – just like my old friend.
I present these in strict chronological order. I hope to blog on each separately, as time goes by …
- The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett
- Puzzle for Puppets (1944) by Patrick Quentin
- Dark Passage (1946) by David Goodis
- The Underground Man (1972) by Ross Macdonald
- Hammett (1975) by Joe Gores
- The Night People (1977) by Jack Finney
- The Last Good Kiss (1978) by James Crumley
- Hoodwink (1981) by Bill Pronzini
- Poor Butterfly (1990) by Stuart M. Kamisky
- Carter Beats the Devil by (2002) by Glen David Gold
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon would probably always have to come first and foremost amongst the classics of the mystery genre to be set in San Francisco. Hammett lived and worked there and it is the backdrop to many of his short stories as well as his second novel, The Dain Curse. Joe Gores, like Hammett, was a private detective before turning to crime writing as a career and he carved out a very distinctive one even though some of his best work makes great homage to the creator of Sam Spade – Hammett (1975) puts the great writer in the middle of his own fictional crime, one that will echo in his later fictional work. Gores later also wrote a prequel to The Maltese Falcon entitled Spade & Archer which is certainly preferable to Perchance to Dream, Robert B. Parker’s sadly botched attempt at a prequel to Chandler’s The Big Sleep as previously discussed here. I have bloogged before about Stuart Kamisnky (right here in fact) and will be reviewing several of his books in the coming months as their combination of detection, humour and Hollywood lore are particularly irresistible to me. Here I have picked one of the few not set in LA from the Toby Peters series. I love magic and mysteries, which is one of the reasons I love John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson so much – but Carter Beats the Devil, with its mixture of fact and fiction, seems to have crept up my list, always without my realising – quite a clever bit of sleight of hand …
James Crumley’s book had a great effect on me when I read in San Francisco and I look forward to blogging about it soon, though I know that there are many who dislike it quite a bit and are in fact not too keen on Crumley. I picked a Pronzini that has a great locked room mystery but I could have easily gone for Quicksilver or a later title – I plan to blog on his short story collection Spadework next week as it provides a very concise overview of the breadth within his ‘Nameless’ series. David Goodis’ Dark Passage was his first and only real commercial success, probably helped by the fact that the movie version starred the hot real-life husband and wife team of Bogart and Bacall. It is a fine book though and well worth rediscovering.
But as an adjunct to this list, I have thought about my 10 favourite crime and mystery movies, also set in San Francisco. These range from the existential angst of John Boorman’s take on the first Parker novel by Donald Westlake/Richard Stark, Point Blank and the Kafka-esque conspiracies of Coppola’s The Conversation to the hilarity of After the Thin Man, a sequel which in many ways improves on the first, not least for being actually shot on location. Of the titles presented here the most obscure may well be Norman Foster’s Noir thriller Woman on the Run (1950) which you can view online free here.
- After the The Thin Man (1936)
- Dark Passage (1947)
- The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
- Woman on the Run (1950) – view online here
- Vertigo (1958)
- Point Blank (1967)
- Bullitt (1968)
- Dirty Harry (1971)
- The Conversation (1974)
- 48 Hrs (1982)
There’s a great mashup of San Francisco crime thrillers available online – it includes chunks from more recent films like the crass but scrumptiously-looking Basic Instinct, an hommage to Vertigo, as well as the rather more impressive Zodiac and The Game, both paranoid thrillers directed by David Fincher, but otherwise includes clips from all the films on my list minus two – can you spot which ones are missing? The YouTube page does in fact list most of the films the clips are taken from (but there are also segments uncredited, like those featuring Claire Trevor from Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947)). For the YouTube page, see: San Francisco is the Scene of a Perfect Crime
Incidentally, the city and its movies got royally spoofed by Mel Brooks in High Anxiety (1978). The Internet Movie database (IMDb) provides an index of some 1,000 movies with links to San Francisco which you can view here
There is also a nice little filmography here.
For a really impressive bibliography, check out the Golden Gate Mysteries resource here: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/sfmystery/