Top 10: San Francisco Mysteries

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.

Image by Mark Coggins - used with his kind permission, with thanks.

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 …

  1. The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett
  2. Puzzle for Puppets (1944) by Patrick Quentin
  3. Dark Passage (1946) by David Goodis
  4. The Underground Man (1972) by Ross Macdonald
  5. Hammett (1975) by Joe Gores
  6. The Night People (1977) by Jack Finney
  7. The Last Good Kiss (1978) by James Crumley
  8. Hoodwink (1981) by Bill Pronzini
  9. Poor Butterfly (1990) by Stuart M. Kamisky
  10. 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.

  1. After the The Thin Man (1936)
  2. Dark Passage (1947)
  3. The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
  4. Woman on the Run (1950)  – view online here
  5. Vertigo (1958)
  6. Point Blank (1967)
  7. Bullitt (1968)
  8. Dirty Harry (1971)
  9. The Conversation (1974)
  10. 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:

This entry was posted in Dashiell Hammett, Film Noir, Parker, Patrick Quentin, Private Eye, Richard Stark, Robert B. Parker, Ross Macdonald, San Francisco, Scene of the crime, Top 10. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Top 10: San Francisco Mysteries

  1. TomCat says:

    From your list, I only had the pleasure of reading two books: Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (I liked the movie better, though) and Pronzini’s Hoodwink – and I have no doubt that Quentin’s Puzzle for Puppets is either absolutely brilliant or merely ingenious, but is there anything worth while among the other titles for a fundamentalistic classicist like myself? 😉

    By the way, Anthony Boucher co-wrote an excellent series of radio mysteries featuring a San Francisco-based importer-turned-detective, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, and there’s a collection of radio scripts available from Crippen and Landru under the same title.

  2. Hi TomCat, Quentin is reall great value as an author(s), isn’t he? I’ve really enjoyed your reviews of the Patrick / Quentin titles – I plan to do some Jonathan Stagge titles soon (if you don’t beat me to it that is). Thanks for the reminder about the Gregory Hood series – I don’t have the collection although 10 of the original radio recordings, all of which are in the book I think, are available online to download for free at the Internet Archive at:

    I do seem to have included mostly hardboiled authors for my favourites and not any cozy authors, which was not deliberate actually – I could have included a couple of the Earl Derr Biggers novels for instance – though I would add that the Ross Macdonald books are fundamentally classically constructed whodunnit puzzles with surprise endings, usually turning on a trick of identity. I did a review of THE GALTON CASE but if you haven’t read him then get a copy of THE CHILL and see if that does it for you (if it doesn’t , then you can probably forego him as an author).

  3. Mark Coggins says:

    My man, you’re welcome to use the photo of the SPADE AND ARCHER window, but you do need to give credit. And, what, no August Riordan mysteries in your list?! 😉

  4. puzzledoctor says:

    Of these, I’ve only read the wonderful Carter Beats The Devil. Something that doesn’t fit either of your categories but I think is worth a mention is the eight seasons of the wonderful TV show Monk. Doesn’t ever really use the location, but does mention it quite a lot.

  5. puzzledoctor says:

    I’d forgotten about the novels – certainly Mr Monk Goes to Hawaii is a great read – far better than a TV show tie-in novel needs to be.

    • I think Goldberg’s long experience writing prose and TV scripts does elevate him far about the the general standard for the tie-in form. Having said that MONK is a character that anyway has a particular kind of literary pedigree with its roots in the Gold Age style of story-telling which is (sadly) unusual in episodic TV.

  6. Fred Zackel says:

    When you get to the Zs … COCAINE AND BLUE EYES by Fred Zackel


    In January 1978 Ross Macdonald wrote, “Fred Zackel’s first novel reminds me
    of the young Dashiell Hammett’s work, not because it is an imitation, but
    because it is not. It is a powerful and original book made from the lives
    and language of the people who live in San Francisco today.”

    TIME magazine describes it as “A spectrum of sex, aging flower children,
    mafia money,
    houseboat life in Sausalito, booze, barbituates, bitterness, incest and
    greed, as nerve-rattling as a full-throttle auto chase!”

    Best wishes.

    • Hello Fred, and welcome. Thanks very much for the prompt, sounds great – how could I possibly refuse? I promise to get back to you on this in about … 7 weeks.

  7. Yvette says:

    What a super post. Of your list of San Francisco books, I’ve read three: THE UNDERGROUND MAN, POOR BUTTERFLY and THE MALTESE FALCON. Loved all three. (Love the Lew Archer books by Ross MacDonald. Discovered him late, so I am as fervent as only a recent convert can be. Also love all of Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters books.)

    Of the films, I saw and love DARK PASSAGE, AFTER THE THIN MAN and THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. VERTIGO I saw but wasn’t that crazy about.

    • Hello Yvette, thanks very much for the kind words. Ross Macdonald isn’t an obvious San Francisco author but I love his work so much I felt I had to get his work on the list somehow if I possibly could!

      VERTIGO is such a dark and morbid movie that it is very hard to like but I will admit to being passionately in love with it (in an appropriately Wagnerian way I should add) – I got to see it twice while in San Francisco so that made it even more special!

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  12. Great post! Very entertaining. And thanks for the shout out to Golden Gate Mysteries!

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