Sam Spade Stepped Here
Dashiell Hammett created an idiom as American as jazz. If Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective story, then Hammett hard-boiled it (and an indebted Raymond Chandler gave it an ornamental deviling). Hammett “helped get murder out of the Vicar’s rose garden,” said Chandler, “and back to the people who are really good at it.”
Gunsels, yeggs, grifters, dames: Hammett’s people were tough-talkers taking unwise risks in ungovernable times. His famous sleuth Sam Spade lived to prove the adage that good men must not obey the law too well. Spade answered to a higher moral code. It was Hammett’s code, too. The author had been a private detective for the Pinkerton agency for several years on two coasts. The dark parts of the human heart were his beat, and karma was his currency.
Hammett’s adult life was bookended with struggle. In 1921 he was labouring to make the rent on an army disability pension. A dozen years later he was rich and successful, but spent; after 1934 he never saw another word of his fiction published; Frail, blacklisted by the toadies of McCarthy, as cynical as the retired dick Nick Charles in The Thin Man, he died penniless in 1961 of lung cancer in New York.
But for a brief spell in the middle, Hammett blazed. He found his voice in San Francisco. Here, in the fog-locked metropolis in the 1920s, he set the best stories he ever wrote: the Continental Op tales, The Glass Key and of course The Maltese Falcon. Hammett “belonged to San Francisco,” his daughter, Jo, would later muse. And as if to repay the favour of its great hospitality, he immortalized the city.
“San Francisco was a character in Hammett’s work, at times a hood, at times a madam, at times the tough beautiful crust of the earth,” wrote the San Francisco editor Warren Hinkle. Hammett’s work became grounded in place to a degree rarely seen in literature. “Joyce’s Dublin comes to mind as another example of this kind of identification,” said Hinckle, “but there aren’t many others.”
Does Hammett really belong in such company? The critic Alexander Woollcott called The Maltese Falcon the best detective story America had produced. Hammett’s stealth literary style, more refined than his fans knew, has endured. Hammett has risen from the genre-fiction ghetto onto the reading lists of undergraduate English courses, alongside Callaghan and Hemingway. He is holding his own pretty well.
But it’s not just the writing that draws Hammettphiles to San Francisco to try to catch his scent: it’s the myth. Who Samuel Dashiell Hammett was, and how he projected himself into the world through his alter-ego, Spade, is still a hot topic for literary pilgrims. Truly, the only way to approach the questions that swirl around Hammett, to trace the stories back to the man, is through shoe-leather detective work of our own. He seems to have known we would come looking. He left clues.
“One of the things that makes Hammett fun is that he always used places he knew, streets he knew, people he knew, in his stories,” says Joe Gores, the San Francisco detective novelist, from his home in nearby Marin County. “In one story, someone sends a trunk back to North Stricker Avenue in Baltimore—to the same address Hammett lived at as a young guy. The Continental Op is based on Jimmy Wright, who ran the Baltimore office of Pinkerton’s. Tom Polhaus, the cop who was a friend of Spade’s, was a childhood pal. There’s a street here in Marin that has part of street name Spade mentions. I think it’s where Hammett’s wife and kids stayed. But nobody knows for sure.”
As only a man who tailed other men for a living could, Hammett clouded the trail behind his protagonist. “The Maltese Falcon frustrates the hell out of anyone trying to retrace Spade’s footprints through the city,” says Gores. Hotels and restaurants are given new names. Description is kept so spare that when Pocket Books issued a revised, post-war version of the novel, with the dates changed to move the action forward 20 years, nobody really noticed the difference.
San Francisco, 1928. Late-afternoon fog, wet as rain, blows into town and settles. It is the prohibition era. The place is run by the cops, the crooks, and the big rich. For every lawfully employed coin-washer or bottle-breaker, there are dozens of petty thieves.
Dashiell Hammett hops off the Geary streetcar and makes for home, wheezing up the last pitch of hill. He has taken his daughter to a speakeasy, where she drank water from a martini glass and he drank Spanish wine. Then he dropped her off with her mother. There are plenty of things here a girl of six shouldn’t see in a wild-west seaport in the 1920s: gambling, prostitution, opium bingeing—the whole catastrophe. Hammett stoops to retrieve a dropped five-cent piece and catches his reflection in a puddle: the push-broom moustache, the fedora, the ever-burning cigarette: he is holding the line. He limps a little from a years-old injury, a fall through the porch roof of a roadhouse as he eavesdropped on the jewel thief “Gloomy Gus” Schaeffer. His job is too tough for the old and too subtle for the young.
This is what happens when you walk down Market Street today, on the Hammett trail: You start to recreate. You see things as he would have seen them. The street people near the BART station with their brick-red faces, their 100-decibel sneezes, waiting for a sign. The speed-chess players (a brilliant cover?), silently attacking. The downtown sidewalks sparkling with pinprick stars of recycled glass. The net-zero of the cable-car system, the cars going down pulling the cars going up—the good and evil in society (or in each person) cancelling themselves out.
When Hammett moved to San Francisco he settled in a series of tiny apartments, first with his wife, and then with their daughter, and then (when his tuberculosis became a threat to the growing family’s health), by himself. He spent his days at the typewriter, chasing the penny a word the pulps paid. These are nondescript places, many of them in the gritty Tenderloin district, but they come to life when you put Hammett in the picture, three quarters of a century forward in time.
You can imagine him exiting 1155 Leavenworth, on Nob Hill, and crossing the street to Chico’s food market for a ham sandwich. Or leaving 120 Ellis on Sunday morning to attend the rollicking 11am service at nearby Glide Memorial (Hammett was an agnostic at best, but he’d come to Glide for the million stories of human redemption). Or stopping at the Backflip bar in the Phoenix Hotel for a Bacardi on his way home to 620 Eddy Street. Or slipping out of 891 Post to get his suit pressed next door at Harvey’s Wash & Fold.
In these rooms Hammett experimented with his craft. He toyed with structure and tone, keeping the description spare enough to keep the plot chugging along, while still providing enough characterization for the irony to work, for there to be an emotional payoff.
His confidence grew. He moved from stories to novels. “I’m one of the few—if there are any more—people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously,” Hammett wrote to his publisher, Blanche Knopf, after putting his first novel, Red Harvest, to bed. “I don’t mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else’s seriously—but the detective story as a form. Some day somebody’s going to make “literature” out of it…and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes, however slight the evident justification may be.”
True Hammettphiles, the kind who enter Hammett writing contests in hopes of winning the hard-boiled egg and the paper-bag bourbon, sometimes scour San Francisco collectible shops for early copies of the pulp mystery magazine Black Mask (where Hammett published dozens of stories in the 1920s) or copies of his Secret Agent X-9 comics, featuring the sleuth who’s a dead ringer for the author.
Kayo’s books, on Post Street, which specializes in pulp fiction and literary pop-cultural arcana, looked like a good bet. I popped in. It was just a few minutes to closing time, and the shop was empty. A young man named Brecht was up on a ladder, painstakingly aligning the books on a shelf marked “sleaze.” He looked like the actor Jack Black’s intellectual brother.
I asked if there’d been a resurgence in interest in Hammett. “It just seems he’s always there,” Brecht said, coming down to my level. “The interest never really died. People buy Hammett pretty regularly. He wasn’t someone like Jim Thompson who only became a cult hero later on — he was successful right away.”
It turned out Kayo’s didn’t have any Hammett-era Black Masks— Brecht suggested they were the kind of things that, in good condition, go for vast sums on eBay — but they did have several copies of something almost as good. From below the counter Brecht produced the coveted Dashiell Hammett souvenir edition of the now-defunct City magazine, dated November 4, 1975, published by Francis Ford Coppola.
Brecht followed me to the window. Darkness had fallen and it had begun to rain. We peered across the street and down, to the brick building on the corner. Eight Ninety-One Post — Hammett’s old place. “I heard Wim Wenders lived there for awhile while they were making [the 1982 film] Hammett, Brecht said. “Apparently he didn’t find it too inspiring.”
A light was on in the fourth-floor corner apartment: Hammett’s actual suite. To the best of the scholars’ reckoning, it was in that flat, number 401, that the author pecked out the Maltese Falcon (along with the rest of the body of his most important work) on his Underwood Royal. It’s also where Sam Spade lived, mulling his options in his padded rocking chair, dog-earing his copy of Celebrated Criminal Cases of America.
If you look under “Spade, Sam” in the San Francisco phone directory, and ask the operator to connect you, you will be put through to Suite 401—where a man named William Arney will answer. Arney fields calls from dozens of Hammett fans a year: I got the sense he doesn’t mind being bothered — he has partly restored the flat to the way it would have looked in Hammett’s day (and nicknamed the elevator the Brigid O’Shaughnessy Memorial Elevator). But when I later called him up he greeted me with an ominously tuburcular-sounding cough, and said he was sorry but I couldn’t come up and see the place until he was feeling more able to entertain.
“Very daring square on the tie, my man, but it’s tied a little too low.” A couple of guys were sitting in front of 870 Market Street the next morning, begging for change from passersby in the most civilized manner. It was here in The Flood Building that Pinkerton’s detective agency had its offices, and where Hammett learned the trade he would convert to literary acclaim.
Hammett never graduated from high-school. The succession of blue-collar jobs he’d tried usually ended in his being summarily canned. But the detective business immediately clicked. Quite quickly he was able to shadow a suspect all day. He once tailed a man for six weeks, through half a dozen small towns, without being noticed. “Once you get the hang of it, shadowing is the easiest of detective work,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of Black Mask. “Even a clever criminal may be shadowed for weeks without suspecting it…and I’m not exactly inconspicuous — standing an inch over six feet.” It wasn’t about remembering features, Hammett claimed, but about memorizing nuance. “Tricks of carriage, ways of wearing clothing, general outline, individual mannerisms — all as seen from the rear — are much more important to the shadow than faces.”
Pinkerton’s is of course no more. The Flood Building is now home to the Mexican consulate, and on this day a long line of immigrants waiting to update their papers snaked down the street, right past the big magnetic clock built for Samuels’, a long-gone jewelery store.
Albert S. Samuels was another of Hammett’s employers. In the spring of 1926, when he was losing ground trying to support two households, Hammett thought advertising might be a way to make a living. It seems hard to reconcile the kind of writing a man might do for a jewelery shop with the serious business of fiction — until you read some of Hammett’s ads:
“The Joneses had been invited to a dinner party at the Smiths. Among the other guests was a Mr. Luce, a prominent diamond merchant from the East. The women present had been admiring a new diamond ring that Mr. Jones had recently presented to his wife.
Suddenly Mr. Luce asked, “May I examine your diamond, Mrs. Jones?”
Mr. Jones overheard the question with mingled feelings of dread and shame. While he had neglected to tell his wife, he recalled that he had purchased the ring from a dealer of uncertain responsibility, chiefly because it made a big showing and was cheaply priced.
As Mr. Lutz examined the gem with keen and practiced eyes, Mr. Jones watched him narrowly. From the expression which stole across the expert’s countenance, Mr. Jones was aware that at least one other person besides himself recognized the diamond’s doubtful value.
What he would have given at that moment if the diamond had been the flawless, blue-white, finely cut gem that had been shown to him at Samuels, but which he had failed to buy because the price was higher for such a size! How he wished he had selected a fine stone of Samuels’ quality, even if it were not so large.”
The ads worked, and soon Hammett was earning four times what he had been making as a writer. But the new lifestyle brought temptations. His own letters of this period mark the beginning of his slide into serious drinking and philandering. Within a year, in ill-health again and worried for his future, he plunged back into his fiction writing with the fevered urgency of a man who can hear each grain of sand in the hourglass falling.
I headed east on Market, toward Union Square. And in so doing, moved away from the man and toward the myth. Union Square is Spade’s domain: its restaurants and hotels and shortcut cab-routes are the gumshoe’s stepstones in The Maltese Falcon.
Hammett today would never recognize gentrified Union Square, which is now the shopping district. Cartier, Gucci, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co., Gump’s, Louis Vuitton: Hammett could probably have spent his $3500 annual 1926 salary in a day. It’s easy to find a metaphor, in the riches of Union Square just blocks from the poverty of Tenderloin, for the extremes of Hammett’s life.
So much of Hammettiana is wrapped up in John Huston’s 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon. After you’ve seen the picture, it’s hard to read the book without hearing the voice of Humphrey Bogart punching up the memorable lines: (“We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy. We believed your two hundred dollars. You paid us more than if you’d been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it alright.”) Bogart becomes the de facto tour guide for anyone shadowing Sam Spade through the heart of San Francisco.
All the place names in The Maltese Falcon have been decoded by Hammett scholars, and virtually all its landmarks located in real geography. Here in Union Square, there is the venerable Westin St. Francis, (called The St. Mark in the novel), where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, worked his last case. There is the nearby Geary Street Theatre at 450 Sutter, where the perfumed crook Joel Cairo planned to attend a showing of The Merchant of Venice. There’s the Sir Francis Drake (called The Alexandria), where “The Fat Man,” Caspar Gutman, stayed, and there’s the Palace Hotel, where Spade shakes off the drugged martini the Fat Man served him the night before.
I hailed a cab for the financial district — because Spade would have — but then decided to walk the few blocks to my next stop instead. Working backwards with old maps, Joe Gores figured out that this, the Hunter-Dulin building, was Sam Spade’s workplace: the office of Spade & Archer, private investigators.
One-eleven Sutter Street remains a magnificent French-Chateau commercial building now tenanted by insurance agents and multinational p.r. firms. A line of semi-skyscrapers blocks the impossible view of the Golden Gate Bridge that Spade had from his window in the movie.
I entered the lobby, asking after Spade. A big man in blue overalls overheard the query on his way past. “Sam?” he said. “Sam’s upstairs.”
But the big man, who was Carroll Virt, the building’s chief engineer, took me down, not up, into the carpentry shop. Carroll had just watched The Maltese Falcon on TV while on holidays in Watsonville, so it was fresh in his mind. “I was mainly just trying to figure out, Did they use my building?” he said. He pulled open a filing-cabinet drawer full of old brass Corbin locks—the ones that were on the doors at the time the movie was made. “I was looking for the locks, the trim, the transoms.” And? “I didn’t actually see the office scenes,” he admitted. “We were trying to make breakfast at the same time.”
Then Carroll produced an old paperback. It was The Last Mafioso, the story of Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno, by Ovid Demaris. He had underlined a scene where The Weasel and an associate keep an appointment with a lawyer named Joe Alioto, here in 111 Sutter. “Mayor Alioto,” Carroll said. “His office was up on the 21st floor.”
Okay, but where was Spade’s office?
“The seventh-floor offices used to look like it, the nineteenth-floor offices used to look like it,” Carroll said. “But in the book Spade says … “I looked up to the fifth floor and saw the light in my office come on.” So: the northeast corner office on the fifth floor. Mystery solved. Except for one thing. We went back up to the lobby. In the middle of the floor, worn right into the marble, was a footprint. The security-desk people like to tell tourists that the print, the size and shape of a Bozo shoe, is Bogart’s.
“Put your foot there,” Carroll said. “Does it fit?”
That depression in the floor, it turned out, was a monument to the patience and loyalty of a more honorable era. It was made by the elevator operator. “Fifty years he stood on that spot,” Carroll said. “What we the man’s name?”
We were getting off-track. On the other hand, for detectives there is no off-track. “There’s one person who’d know. Go to 114 Sansome and ask for Arnie.”
In front of another stately old building just down the street, a guy with a green gimme cap and a big knot of keys on his belt stood talking with the security guard. Arnie Justice worked 111 Sutter for decades. I asked him about that elevator operator. He brought the name up in two great mental heaves. “Tony…Lamalle.” The recollection opened the memory banks wide.
“The FBI had their offices in there,” Arnie said. “Tony’s son became an FBI agent. Every day he walked past his father and got into the elevator. When he retired, his father was still standing there.”
We were getting rained on.
“Jerry Brown, the governor?” Arnie said. “During the depression, when nobody could afford the rent, two young lawyers would rent one office, put two desks in there and share the rent. Jerry Brown was one of them.”
“You know, Arnie, I hear Sam Spade’s office was in there,” I said.
Arnie fell silent for a moment. “It was?” he said.
You can see the sleuth rising into view, in the fog, hat first as he crests the hill, ever ready to uncork his native antipathy to anyone with a badge or an attitude. Was Spade Hammett? The author was asked the question a lot, and he had an answer: “Spade had no original,” Hammett wrote. “He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would liked to have been and what quite a few of them thought they approached: not an erudite solver of riddles but a hardboiled, shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with.”
No, Spade was not Hammett. But to a Hammetphile, the most interesting places in San Francisco are where the man and the myth meet.
John’s Grill, at 63 Ellis Street, with its darkwood panelling and linen tablecloths and photos of famous diners on the wall, trades on its history. John’s was to Hammett what the Vesuvius Pub, a mile or two away in North Beach, was to Kerouac: a satellite office. It’s easy to imagine Hammett putting his wet gloves on the radiator and taking his familiar seat in the booth at the back.
This is also where Spade had dinner while waiting for a cab in The Maltese Falcon. He “asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee” when his ride showed up. They still serve Sam Spade’s chops at John’s, same as they ever were except for the price, which has been steadily climbing. (Also on the menu is a treacly Mickey Finn called a Bloody Brigid, which seems more a novelty item than a legitimate beverage option.)
I ordered the chops and asked the waiter to hurry it up. They came with the tomatoes on a little bed of spinach leaves—the only concession to modern tastes. I got the feeling that, these days, butting out a cigarette on the bones would not be encouraged.
For more than two decades the Dashiell Hammett Society, a loose aggregation of historians, writers, cops and private eyes, met here at John’s. “To San Francisco for developing the seed of a writing career for Samuel Dashiell Hammett, her adopted son,” reads a plaque on the wall from the society. And a manifesto: “We believe that this society will carry on in the finest tradition as long as we can sense that Dash is still stalking the streets and alleys of San Francisco.”
Does the group still meet? Owner John Konstin shook his head. “It sort of wound up when the founder passed away.” But the room where they did gather, The Maltese Falcon Room, remains intact. I popped up the stairs to check it out. The room, which was full of movie stills — Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre — was deserted. The tables were set for a birthday party that either had yet to be held or that no-one had shown up for. Outside the door, in a display case, was… the stuff that dreams are made of. The Maltese Falcon itself. Or was it? I wanted to scratch the surface with a fingernail, but the bird was behind glass. If it was a replica, it was a good one — a dead-ringer for the fake the greedy conspirators take for their priceless booty. Here it was. I was satisfied it wasn’t going anywhere. So that, as they say, was that.
But there was still a final stop.
In 1988 the city of San Francisco, in recognition of its literary history, renamed 12 streets after prominent writers who plied their craft here. It’s easy to suspect the civic leaders were playing a joke when they chose Dashiell Hammett Street. Let’s find one too small to appear on most tourist maps– so that its location will be a minor mystery. If you want to solve it you’ll be forced to talk to strangers—which, as Hammett would say, is the only way to get good intelligence. For about half an hour it seems entirely possible that Dashiell Hammett Street is the Marvin Gardens of San Francisco, the only property on the playing board that doesn’t physically exist. But then: there it is. The former Munroe Alley. Just off the most majestic stretch of Pine Street in Nob Hill, with its cheek-by-jowl Victoriana.
Dashiell Hammett is a one-way street that takes you right to the cleaners (Paragon cleaners, on Bush Street). A sign in the window of the big brownstone at the end of the road read “Enough Killing.” Hammett lived here for a brief time in 1926, at number 20. There was a suite for rent in his building. I called the phone number. The suite was a studio—put your bed in the living room—for $995. Dashiell Hammett Street is the perfect San Francisco address for noir hounds. Because just a few hundred yards from here is where The Maltese Falcon got rolling.
In the book Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, took one “right through the pump” on an embankment just above the Stockton tunnel. His body spun down the hill and came to rest against a billboard. The path the corpse took is not immediately obvious (in fact, buildings now fill the then-vacant corridor). I stood on the overpass looking down at Stockton, as Spade had. “An automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him with a roaring whish, as if it had been blown out.”
Shortly after the first person pinpointed the exact position of the shooting, a chalked reminder of the event appeared on the sidewalk near the mouth of Burritt Street. It took Hammettphiles years to convince the city to put up something permanent, but a brass plaque there now commemorates one of crime fiction’s most important moments: “On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.” (Recently, when a little of the San Francisco anarchist spirit of old was in the air, someone added an “o” to the street sign, so that passersby read “Burritto” Street. It was so expertly done that it remained uncorrected for week—many San Franciscans merely puzzled about the name change.)
I walked down Burritt. There was quite a lot going on. Someone was getting a traffic ticket. Someone else was locked out of his flat and someone was having a heated, cryptic conversation (“Flush.” “I did flush.” “No man, flush!”). From within the building, there was the sound, always disconcerting in an urban setting, of a power saw.
Burritt Street dead-ends after about 50 yards. It is everything Hammett’s life was and would become—both more than you expect it to be, and less. “After 1933,” wrote biographer William Nolan, “Hammett “had written himself into a blind corner and no longer believed that the criminal ills of society could be dealt with on a one-to-one basis.”
Frankly, it was a hell of a way to end an evening’s walk.
THE WRITER’S TRAIL
San Francisco is (or was pre-September 11) America’s most popular tourist destination, and as such it’s packed in the summertime. The best time to get a quiet moment with Hammett’s ghost is in the shoulder seasons, spring or fall. As befits a high-traffic destination, airline fares are competitive most times of the year. Ongoing airport construction means the incoming hoardes will be gracefully handled — eventually.
Snooping around: Since you’ll spend most of your time in or around Union Square, it’s not worth renting a car. Depending on your stamina, and how you fare on hills, it may be worth getting a one-zone cable car passpost ($15 for the week. See www.sfcablecar.com/riders.html)
San Francisco is one of the great walking cities, and its downtown one of the most inviting — perfect for sleuthing out Hammett sites. But be warned: some of the early flats he rented are in dodgy Tenderloin neighbourhoods. Probably only the most die-hard fans will want to check them out, and even then only in the daytime. get in the mood, you may want to catch a film noir flick at the Castro or the Roxy, subject to scheduling.
Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett Tour. (www.donherron.com). The local historian’s four-hour, three-mile walking tour is probably the best and most entertaining way to cover the Hammett beat. In a trenchcoat and fedora, Hammett leads folks through the city, delivering movie lines in a Bogart accent. Off-season, you can recreate the tour with Herron’s book, The Dashiell Hammett Tour (City Lights)
Maltese Falcon replicas: You’ll never find any of the three originals made for the 1941 John Huston film, but replicas of the bird, made from a casting of the original, are available from a shop called Accessories to Murder. P.O. Box 2324 Seal Beach, CA. 90704
City, The Dashiell Hammett issue, Nov 4., 1975. This special souvenir edition of the now-defunct San Francisco magazine is on file in the Dashiell Hammett folder in the San Francisco history room on the top floor of the public library. This particular issue (edited by David Fechheimer and Fred Gardner) includes some of the Secret Agent X-9 comic strips and a previously unpublished draft of The Thin Man.
For Hammetphiles, the only choice is Union Square, the domain of The Maltese Falcon. Specifically, you’ll want to stay in one of the hotels mentioned in the novel. Three hotels figured prominently; though their names were disguised. Two of them are still in operation:
- The Westin St. Francis. 335 Powell Street. 415-397-7000. The elegant St. Francis is almost certainly the model for the fictional St. Mark, where treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy stayed in The Maltese Falcon. Interestingly, it is also where, in room 1221, a young wannabe starlet named Virginia Rabbe died in 1921 after an orgy; the comic actor Fatty Arbuckle was charged with her rape and murder, and Hammett, who was then a Pinkerton’s detective, worked on the case. (He would call it “the funniest case I ever worked on…In trying to convict him everybody framed everybody else.”) Extremely expensive.
- The Sir Francis Drake. 750 Bush Street. 1-800-227-5480. This hotel, just down the block from the St. Francis, was the likely stand-in for The Alexandria, where Floyd Thursby was staying. Moderate.
- The Chinatown YMCA. 855 Sacramento Street. 415-957-9622. Okay, this one isn’t featured in the Hammett canon, but it’s cheap. Plus, you’re likely to run into the kinds of characters Hammett would have found most interesting. Inexpensive.
The San Francisco Public Library. 100 Larkin Street (at Grove). Where you will find the Hammett biographies serendipidously right next to the Lillian Hellman biographies. Here, after quitting Pinkerton’s and in failing health, Hammett would spend his days reading…everything. He started with the mystery magazines. He was not impressed. Of a prominent, successful author’s work (S.S. Van Dine), Hammett offered: “His exposition of the technique employed by a gentleman shooting another gentleman who sits six feet in front of him deserves a place in a ‘How to be a detective by mail’ course.” The fire was lit.
San Francisco Mystery Bookstore: 4175 24th street. Look for the work of local mystery writers Linda Grant and Joe Gores — as well of plenty of Hammett, of course. 415-282-7444
San Francisco Convention and Visitor’s Bureau: www.sfvisitor.org
Weather guide: www.sfchamber.com/san_francisco_weather.htm
Another site: www.sanfrancisco.worldweb.com
In a Mysterious Mood
Selected books on Hammett:
The Literary World of San Francisco and its Environs, by Don Herron and Nancy J. Peters (City Lights, 1985). What is surely the best literary guide to an American city has a lengthy section on Hammett.
Shadow Man: the Life of Dashiell Hammett, by Richard Layman. (1979, University of Pittsburgh Press). Layman, who also edited Hammett’s recently released letters, may be the greatest American Hammett scholar.
Dashiell Hammett: a Daughter Remembers, by Jo Hammett (Carroll & Graf, 2001). A well-written account by Hammett’s younger daughter — credited, along with “Selected Letters,” with the resurgence of interest in Hammett.
Hammett: a Life at the Edge, by William F Nolan. (Congdon & Weed; Distr. St. Martin’s Press). Overlaps somewhat with Layman’s book, but is nonetheless worth reading.
The Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960. Edited by Richard Layman. (Counterpoint, 2001). Provides a more nuanced version of the man than you’re likely to have from reading the novels and absorbing the myth.
Hammett: A Novel, by Joe Gores (Putnam, 1975). Fictional treatment by the man who, as a crime-novellist and former p.i. himself, is in the best position to get inside Hammett’s head. “A private detective digs through the garbage of people’s lives,” Gores says, “and a writer about private detectives makes up people and then digs through the garbage of their lives. It’s kind of the same thing.”
Dashiell Hammett: A Life, by Diane Johnson. (Random House, 1983). The “official biography.” Johnson was the only writer to have the full co-operation of Lillian Hellman’s estate. But in such an arrangement there is always a compromise— access for objectivity.
Selected books by Hammett
The Maltese Falcon. 1930. Sam Spade is born. Astonishingly, a mythic figure was generated even though he only appeared in one novel (and, later, a few short stories). Also the point at which Hammett switched to Third Person narrative, creating a new level of emotional detachment.
The Glass Key. 1931. Considered by many, including Hammett himself, as his best book.
Red Harvest. 1927. The first (along with The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key) of a triumverate of Hammett novels considered among the best detective fiction ever written by an American. In his later years Hammett became increasingly obsessed with Leftist causes, and some read this as an ideological tract.
The Continental Op, 1923. Hammett’s first book hatched a new kind of sleuth. The first-person narration invites speculation that the Op is Hammett. But Hammett’s description of the fellow, “a fat, middle-aged man who goes about his job as a pro,” suggests not.
The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels. Seven Hammett stories (including “The Gutting of Couffignal”) written between 1923 and 1929. A good primer of his short work.
The Maltese Falcon, 1931, Warner Bros. Highly regarded adaptation of Hammett’s most famous novel, directed by Roy Del Ruth with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
The Maltese Falcon 1941, Warner Bros. Even more highly regarded—okay, let’s just call it a classic—remake by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor.
(Note: a number of tributes or parodies of The Maltese Falcon followed the original, most prominently the 1936 William Dieterle film Satan Met a Lady. The best are probably Peter Hyams’ Goodnight, My Love (1972), and Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective (1978). Avoid at all costs the Rowan & Martin Laugh-In era sendup The Maltese Bippy.
The Thin Man, 1934, MGM. Hammett probably based Nick and Nora, the jocularly jousting couple (played in the films by William Powell and Myrna Loy), on himself and Lillian Hellman. Hammett was involved in the two immediate sequels, After the Thin Man, (MGM 1936), and Another Thin Man, (MGM 1939); But the two sequels that followed thereafter, The Shadow of the Thin Man and The Thin Man Goes Home, were made without Hammett’s involvement (the studio had bought the title and character rights).
Hammett, 1982, directed by Wim Wenders, produced by Francis Ford Coppola. The legendary French director Francis Truffaut called Joe Gores’ script of the imagined life of the author, the best American script he’d ever read.” But this film, which beautifully captures the spirit of film noir (in colour) went through a tortuous process, during which Gores script was rewritten and rewritten again. Frederic Forrest looks a lot like Hammett. “The Adventures of the Thin Man.” This hugely popular radio adaptation, which ran on Lux Radio Theatre in the 1940s , is probably still available somewhere.
And don’t forget…
Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate tale is the template for The Maltese Falcon. The astute literary critic George Fetherling has laid out the parallels: Spade’s apartment, where the Falcon-chasers wait together for the statue to be delivered, is the stockaded Fort where Dr. Livesay and the others are besieged by the pirate. Caspar Gutman is Long John Silver. The gunsel is Silver’s parrot. And so on.
Miller’s Crossing: Déjà vu all over again. A liberal borrowing, by the Coen brothers, from Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Glass Key. The Coens would no doubt call it an (uncredited) homage.
The procedurals of Freeman Wills Crofts, and Carroll John Daly’s “Race Williams” stories no doubt influenced Hammett’s developing style. They’re worth a look.
The following sites, worthwhile bookmarking in their own right, have links to Hammett:
- Classic mystery and detection: www.members.aol.com/mg4273/classics.htm
How to talk like Spade:
A few lines worth memorizing, and tossing out at the opportune moment (in Bogey’s accent, of course).
Bogart as Spade, to Mary Astor’s Brigid: “Yes, Angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
“Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”
Detective Tom Polhaus: “What’s this?”
Spade: “It’s, uh, the stuff that dreams are made of.”
Brigid: “You won’t get into any trouble, will you?”
Spade: “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”
“People lose teeth talking like that. If you want to hang around, you’ll be polite.”
Spade, to Brigit: “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”
Joel Cairo: “You always have a very smooth explanation ready, huh?”
Spade: “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”
“When one of your organization gets killed, it’s, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere.”
Wilmer Cook: “Keep on riding me. They’ll be picking iron out of your liver.”
Spade: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”