Time travel

Pub date May 11, 2010
WriterBen Terrall


LIT Sometimes when I’m bored walking around Union Square, I wonder how many of the well-heeled white guys heading toward the Financial District are really criminal types who should be followed. Say, maybe some higher-up at Wells Fargo or Citigroup who helped rip off thousands through subprime loans before getting a nice slice of that sweet Wall Street bailout money.

When I’m feeling that way, I’m under the influence of a seminal 20th century writer who spent his most productive years in San Francisco. Here’s a passage that sends me there:

She walked on down Post Street to Kearny, stopping, stopping every now and then to look — or to pretend to look — in store windows; while I ambled along sometimes beside her, sometimes, almost by her side, and sometimes in front.

She was trying to check the people around her, trying to determine whether she was being followed or not. But here, in the busy part of town, that gave me no cause for worry. On a less crowded street it might have been different, though not necessarily so.

There are four rules for shadowing: Keep behind your subject as much as possible; never try to hide from him; act in a natural manner no matter what happens; and never meet his eye. Obey them, and, except in unusual circumstances, shadowing is the easiest thing that a sleuth has to do.

The narrator so hep to the ways of the tail is Dashiell Hammett’s “Continental Op,” an operative for the fictional Continental Detective Agency, whose adventures in print include some of Hammett’s finest San Francisco tales.

Don Herron’s walking tour of landmarks associated with Hammett’s time in San Francisco is well worth making for anyone curious about the history of the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, who helped create hardboiled crime fiction and was one its greatest practitioners. At three to four hours of often hilly trekking, it’s a bit of a commitment, but at $10, it’s an affordable way to engage in the next best thing to time travel.

Herron, author of books about pulp actioneer Robert Howard and noir craftsman Charles Willeford, has been informally conducting the tour for three decades. It started in 1977 as part of a “free college” known as Communiversity. The Dashiell Hammett Tour: Thirtieth Anniversary Guidebook (2009), which updates earlier versions, is a nifty package that belongs on the shelf of any self-respecting San Francisco denizen with a passion for our city’s often twisted past. It’s a lively combination of biographical material about Hammett, assorted related trivia that never seems trivial, and Herron’s memories from 30 years of accompanying a broad spectrum of writers, fans, and eccentrics through the former stomping grounds of Hammett and his fictional creations.

The tour starts near the former site of the San Francisco Library Main Branch, now the Asian Art Museum. In an era of economic collapse papered over with massive subsidies to the same financial entities that brought us to collapse in the first place, lessons from earlier belt-tightening eras are useful. Hence it’s only appropriate to tip our fedoras to the memory of an autodidact left-winger who never finished high school but, by devoting years to reading in public libraries, got a better education than most who did. Though Hammett was making good money from writing crime fiction by the late 1920s, when he lived at 620 Eddy St. in the early 1920s, he couldn’t afford books and the library was a lifeline. The 1923 photo on page 66 of the guidebook, of what Heron calls “Hammett’s Reading Room” in the old main library branch at 200 Larkin St., is a beaut.

When Hammett and his family lived at 620 Eddy, their landlady was a bootlegger. Hammett’s wife later recalled cops rousting people in front of their window to the street. As Herron notes, today’s prohibition on hard drugs is about as effective at deterring users as the earlier one on alcohol, and equally effective at creating endless business opportunities for motivated entrepreneurs. If you’re not legally blind and are paying any attention at all, it’s likely you may see one or two such enterprising businesspeople on the streets of the Hammett tour. It’s also a safe bet they might bear a resemblance to the Continental Op’s self-description: “My face doesn’t scare children, but it’s a more or less truthful witness to a life that hasn’t been overburdened with refinement and gentility.”

The 1920s in San Francisco were wild, wide-open years full of fast living and dodgy characters. The late venerable columnist Herb Caen wrote of the period: “The Hall of Justice was dirty and reeked of evil. The City Hall, the D.A., and the cops ran the town as though they owned it, and they did … You could play roulette in the Marina, shoot craps on O’Farrell, play poker on Mason, and get rolled at 4 a.m. in a bar on Eddy.”

Hammett toiled on his used Underwood typewriter late into the night, creating characters and stories based on what he’d seen in that milieu. During World War I, he contracted both Spanish influenza and tuberculosis. When his TB got so bad that it was hazardous to the health of his wife and baby to maintain a family abode, he moved out and lived in a succession of apartments, including one up the hill from Eddy Street at 891 Post St., at the corner of Hyde. In a corner apartment on the fourth floor of that building, Hammett pounded out his first three novels. If you’re lucky, on Herron’s tour you’ll be buzzed in and get to see where Hammett typed, ate, drank, and smoked furiously — and sometimes pulled down the Murphy bed to sleep. The apartment of The Maltese Falcon‘s tough detective Sam Spade was based on the snug little dwelling.

The current occupant is Bill Arney, an architect and Hammett fan. When he showed the tour I was on around the small one-bedroom unit, I noticed a great compilation of “crime jazz,” soundtrack music from black and white crime movies and TV shows, on top of a pile of CDs. Appropriate, since Arney serves as announcer for the Noir City film festival local mover and shaker Eddie Muller puts on at the Castro Theatre every January.

Hammett left a permanent mark on San Francisco. Specifically, on the block-long street that used to be called Monroe, which runs south off Pine in the block between Powell and Stockton. From what is now called Dashiell Hammett Street, walk east on Bush and on the right, at Burritt Street, just before the Stockton tunnel overpass, ponder the plaque that reads: ON APPROXIMATELY THIS SPOT/MILES ARCHER,/PARTNER OF SAM SPADE,/WAS DONE IN BY/BRIGID O’SHAUGHNESSY.

We are lucky to be in a city that commemorates one of its most accomplished past local residents with a plaque honoring a killing that was a product of that writer’s imagination. *

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