Related Articles: Literary, All

Dark City

Dashiell Hammett casts a long shadow over San Francisco, but not all of his disciples deserve to be called "noir."

On the corner of Stockton Street and Burritt Alley, halfway between the ultra-chic Masa's restaurant and the ultra-seedy Green Door Massage Parlor, you'll find a small, tarnished, mossy plaque high on a wall, bearing this sentence: "On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy."

The sign is remarkable for what it leaves out: the fact that the doing-in took place in a book and that the deceased didn't exist. But Spade, Archer, and O'Shaughnessy, of Dashiell Hammett's classic novel The Maltese Falcon, are as real to San Franciscans as Emperor Norton. Another, much more picturesque lane up the block has been renamed Dashiell Hammett Place, but we know which spot is the more fitting legacy. Hammett's world-weary, fast-talking private eyes (most famously Spade, but also the unnamed Continental Op) have inspired legions of authors to take up the typewriter and gin bottle, move to fog-shrouded San Francisco, and hammer out gritty tales of greed and murder all their own.

New York noir dwells on the grit and dirt of the heartless big city. New Orleans has its gator-filled swamps, vampires, and voodoo. In L.A., we find a city full of broken dreamers, saps who came west in search of orange groves and sunshine, only to be seduced by hot-air promises and beautiful but dangerous women. In S.F., it's not just the dame who does the seducing, it's the curving hills and rolling fog of the city itself.

But what exactly to call this genre? Turns out this is a popular argument among fans of mystery, crime, and noir writing. Just because a hardboiled detective book is set in a dark seamy underworld doesn't make it noir. A true noir detective is one who gets too involved, is caught in an obsessive, self-destructive downward spiral, and often ends up in a pool of his own blood. If this doesn't happen, it's just a detective novel.

Representing true San Francisco noir is Eddie Muller, author of several non-fiction books about film noir as well as two recent novels, The Distance and Shadow Boxer. He is also founder of San Francisco's Film Noir Festival. Set in the very Hammettesque 1940s, Muller's novels feature Billy Nichols, a San Francisco nquirer boxing reporter, based in part on Muller's own father.

A few local mystery authors follow the Hammett mold so closely they, too, worked as private eyes in San Francisco before they wrote books. David Corbett, author of The Devil's Redhead and Done For a Dime, out last month in paperback, was an investigator for fifteen years. Joe Gores, who has been writing decidedly un-P.C. tales of Gypsy car thieves and fortune tellers since 1966, was a repo man starting in the mid-'50s, with an outfit similar to his fictional Daniel Kearny Associates. (You've gotta love any book with a dedication like this one, from Gores' 32 Cadillacs: "This book is for my beloved Dori, who helped me snatch a Cadillac from Mafia
hitman Jimmy 'The Weasel' Fratianno on our first date." )

Husband-and-wife crime-writing duo Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller are both breathtakingly prolific, with scores of novels to their credit. Pronzini's signature character, The Nameless Detective, borrows a device from Hammett's Continental Op and never reveals his identity to the reader. Though name less, he isn't lonely; he's been known to keep company with Muller's star private eye Sharon McCone. Their latest offerings, Muller's The Dangerous Hour and Pronzini's The Alias Man, are out this month. Peter Plate, author of the recent novel Fogtown, doesn't stand with both feet in the massive shadow of Hammett. After squatting for many years
in abandoned buildings, Plate sees the city though the eyes of those on the bottom and on the outside. The San Francisco of Fogtown, Plate's eighth book, is only a few blocks but a million light years from the world of The Maltese Falcon. The denizens are just as colorful, the descriptions just as deliciously deadpan, but the streets are a whole lot meaner and won't be appearing on a postcard anytime soon.

"Killing a man with your bare hands -- now that was dancing with the lights turned low," muses psychotic killer Richard Rood, who wears a red velvet suit like a "Ghetto Santa Claus." The happy memory Richard is looking back on is the time he drowned a scamming drug dealer in a toilet: "His last breath had been tart, like an unhappy lover's."

Fogtown focuses on Mama Celeste, an elderly God-fearing resident of Sixth Street's Allen Hotel, who has occasional face-to-face conversations with the Devil himself and one lucky day becomes the accidental owner of a shoebox full of stolen cash. Soon enough, a lot of Civic Center characters with competing interests -- cops, thugs, junkies, dealers, and the like -- are looking for her.

Plate's social agenda is rawer than that of most mystery writers. At a Commonwealth Club literary panel, Plate caused an uproar when he accused the Mission District venue Intersection for the Arts of not doing enough for the kids of nearby housing projects. A fellow panelist rebuked him, much to the audience's delight, but Plate seemed unfazed.

As self-styled voice of the City's downtrodden, Plate mixes activism with his entertainment. Dashiell Hammett -- the private eye, downtrodden alcoholic, and card-carrying communist -- might have been proud, but Hammett the writer of flint-honed narratives might have balked. Plate's historical asides, such as the one about the 1934 general strike and Emma Goldman, feel clunky and preachy next to the guy getting stabbed through the jugular in a fight over a barstool.

Still, there is something uniquely San Francisco in the fact that Fogtown strives to be good for you while delivering the pulpy goods. We'll leave to it others to figure out if it's noir.