San Francisco Mysteries

Volume 11, No. 2, Summer 1995

San Francisco Mysteries


  • The Nine-County Bay Area by Carol Harper
  • A Lit/Mys Trip to San Francisco by Roberta Ann Henrich
  • Specialists in Skip-Tracing and Repossessions by Peter Kenney
  • San Francisco’s Finest: 21 Women Sleuths by Joan Hammerman Robbins
  • The Maltese Falcon: The Films by Leila Laurence
  • San Francisco Sleuth Sorority by Kate Derie
  • The Cool Gray City by Catherine A. Accardi
  • Jeremiah St. John Moves Across Country to San Francisco by William Babula
  • Why I Write About San Francisco by James Dalessandro
  • San Francisco: The True Home of Fremont Jones by Dianne Day
  • Everywoman in the Emerald City by Linda Grant
  • The John Marshall Tanner Novels by Stephen Greenleaf
  • S.F.P.I. by Jerry Kennealy
  • Out of San Francisco by Laurie R. King
  • A Private Eye in Oakland by J.D. Knight
  • Setting by John T. Lescroart
  • Right Here in the Mad City by Margaret Lucke
  • Crimes, Cops and Cooks—San Francisco Style by Joanne Pence
  • My Setting—The SF Bay Area by Shelley Singer
  • I’ve Kept My Heart in San Francisco by Gloria White
  • A Garret, A Typewriter & A Table by Collin Wilcox


  • Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by Carol A. Byrd, William F. Deeck, Barry Gardner, Carol Harper and Peter Kenney
  • In Short: Don’t Call It ‘Frisco by Marvin Lachman
  • Just Juveniles by Nancy Roberts
  • A Mystery Reader Abroad: Scotland by Carol Harper
  • MRI Mayhem
  • Letters to the Editor

The Cool Gray City
by Catherine A. Accardi (Walnut Creek, CA)

It was a dark and foggy night, that evening of my birth in San Francisco. The year was 1949 and, until 1992, it was the only city in which I had lived. No, don’t worry, this isn’t my autobiography. It’s just an intro into my San Francisco mysteries article. The point being that I really did leave my heart in San Francisco when I moved to Walnut Creek several years ago. Some of my favorite mysteries are set in The Cool Gray City. It is with this serious sentimental penchant for San Francisco that I recently began collecting San Francisco mystery books, concentrating on those written before the 1950s.

The following books are noteworthy San Francisco mysteries.

Many a Monster by Robert Finnegan (Simon & Schuster, 1948)

A fiend is on the loose. Still timely twist regarding the murderer’s identity and sex in the end.

Siren in the Night by Leslie Ford (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943)

San Francisco high society becomes suspect in a murder of one of their own.

The Case of the Substitute Face by Erle Stanley Gardner (Morrow, 1938)

Perry Mason become involved in a murder aboard a ship crossing the Pacific from Hawaii and solves the case in San Francisco.

House of Evil by Clayre and Michael Lipman (Lyon, 1954)

On the surface, he seemed like such a nice young man, but underneath lurked a lunatic.

House on Telegraph Hill by Dana Lyons

This book was written in the 1940s but I have not been able to find a copy despite a desperate search. The movie version of this book, starring William Lundigan, Valentina Cortesa and Richard Basehart, was filmed in 1951 all over Telegraph Hill and North Beach with some great scenes of The City as it was. It is a wonderfully moody story about a woman immigrant freed from a German concentration camp who takes up another woman’s identity.

Dark Passage by David Goods (Julian Messner, 1946)

Yes, Sir/Madam, this is the book on which the classic movie was based. Principal characters in the movie are Vincent Perry and Irene Janney, played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Vincent Perry is escaping from San Quentin where he was incarcerated for the murder of his wife, a murder he did not commit. Along comes Irene in her car, ready to hide him in her San Francisco apartment. She had been following his case and believed him innocent. Perry undergoes plastic surgery and changes his identity, intent on finding the murderer of his wife. He is successful in finding the murderer but remains wanted by the police, unable to prove his innocence. Having fallen in love with Irene, it appears their only recourse if to leave the country and they agree to meet in Peru.

The movie keeps close to the book with only two significant departures. Irene’s apartment in the book is in an unidentified building somewhere on Geary Street while in the movie the apartment is 1360 Montgomery Street at the Filbert steps, across from the Shadows Restaurant under the shadow of Coit Tower. The building still exists, still an attractive structure with a current tenant displaying a life-sized cardboard likeness of Bogart in the apartment’s window. Also, the movie is kinder as it ends with a scene of Bogart and Bacall meeting in a nightclub in Peru. The book ends with a phone conversation during which they agree to meet in Peru someday. Although the book is good, the movie is better as it brings the written word vividly to life with scenes of The City, the Golden Gate Bridge and dark passages.

Foghorns by Howard Pease (Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1937)

Is this vintage San Francisco or what? In the first paragraph, “San Francisco was smothered in fog. Against the windows of the Seaman’s Hiring Hall the mist swirled in eddies so dense that young Greg Richards, peering down into the gloom, could barely make out the waterfront street below.” San Francisco’s world-famous waterfront is the scene. The story is centered on a young Sacramento college student and his desire to ship out of the port of San Francisco during the time of labor troubles with longshoremen vs. sailors vs. shipping companies. The story takes place in the San Francisco of the 1930s, when San Francisco was still the major west coast working port, before it was replaced by the tasteless tourist shops and non-maritime uses.

Inexperienced with the swarthy and devious ways of some sailors, Greg’s overwhelming desire to ship out leads him to use his last dime and, unknowingly, illegally buy a “blue card” belonging to another sailor. This card will entitle him to a position as ordinary seaman on the freighter S. S. Araby. This innocent but careless behavior plunges him into trouble. His crusty shipmates are suspicious of this young whipper-snapper. When a number of suspicious on-board fires threaten the ship and it’s cargo, Greg befriends the Captain and becomes involved in murder and mayhem. In a midnight taxicab ride along the Embarcadero, chasing after the villain, Greg could see “above the buildings the enormous Oakland Bridge extending out across the Embarcadero and disappearing in to the fog over the bay. Walking in the shadow of such a colossal structure made him feel suddenly small and insignificant.”

Thunderbolt House by Howard Pease (Doubleday, 1943)

I was about 12 when I first read Thunderbolt House. Mr. Pease wrote books for young adults but any romantic adult like myself would still be charmed by this book. After reading it 35 years ago, I reluctantly returned the book to the San Francisco Main Library. Years later, I craved reading it again, only to find it under lock and key in a rare book cabinet in the same library. After an exhaustive search for my own copy, it is now under glass in my own collection of rare San Francisco historiana.

Thunderbolt House takes place in 1906 San Francisco where the young hero of the book, Judson Allen, uncovers a dark family secret involving his wealthy great uncle known as Thunderbolt Judson. When old Thunderbolt died, everybody called Judson’s family the lucky Allens. They inherited his fortune and his San Francisco mansion at Bush and Leavenworth on Nob Hill. (Of course, I went there just in case the dark foreboding mansion really existed even after the 1906 earthquake and fire, but, alas, all I found were post-earthquake apartment buildings.) Unpleasant events began from the very first day the Allen family arrived from Stockton on a ferry boat across the bay. The book presents a picturesque description of San Francisco of the 1900s, including a cable car ride from the Ferry Building through the fog on the hills of The City.

Judson discovers a secret about the mansion’s great library and a blood stain on the ballroom floor and is just about to solve the family mystery when the 1906 earthquake shatters San Francisco and the Allen family. The account of the historic fire and earthquake is vivid. The book gives a colorful recount of the Barbary Coast, the City of Paris and other long-lost San Francisco treasures.

And Turned to Clay by Lenore Glen Offord (Jarrolds Publishers, 1950)

Lenore Glen Offord was, at one time, the mystery reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle with a column titled “The Gorey Road.” I believe this would have been in the 1970s. I have made desperate attempts to locate two of her other San Francisco mysteries, The Glass Mask and true crime The Girl in the Belfry, but to no avail.

And Turned to Clay is set in post-W.W. II San Francisco and in it, heroine Noel Bruce is a hostess at the Servicemen’s Art Center. Her involvement in a murder mystery begins at the Center and takes her into the lives of art students studying at the Sharwin School in North Beach. The body in the mystery was discovered under the molded clay of a life-size sculpture. Stinky. So who killed Mr. Chester Varney?

Dead Center by Mary Collins (Charles Scribner, 1943)

Dead Center takes place at 706 Montgomery, and Collins does weave the ambiance of San Francisco into her story. I bought the 1946 Dell paperback edition with a drawing of 706 Montgomery on the inside cover and the description reads, “the disreputable old building at 706 Montgomery turned out to be a perfect hangout not only for artists and writers but also for murder.” Currently there is no such address. It would have been across the street from Melvin Belli’s offices in the middle of what was, in the 1800s and early 1900s, the infamous Barbary Coast.

The heroine is Janet Keith. From a wealthy family, she finds it difficult to write in her family’s sterile Pacific Heights mansion so she moves into 706. Although a rich man’s daughter, Keith is accepted and well-liked until she discovers the mutilated body of one other friend in the artist’s workroom. Tormented by the horror of the crime, she is driven to uncovering the identity of the murderer and, in the process, upsets the secret lives of her fellow artists. Their neighborhood hangouts include the Montgomery Block Building, originally, during the 1800s, the first office complex in California and in later years, it included a hangout for Bohemians (remember them before the Hippies!), finally to be demolished as the site of the Transamerica Pyramid. Progress. Collins makes a good contrast between he lives of North Beach artists vs. the wealthy Pacific Heights community of Janet’s parents.

32 Cadillacs by Joe Gores (Warner Books, 1993)

Joe Gores is a modern mystery master. 32 Cadillacs is entertaining, very funny, without sacrificing character development and plot detail. The private eye firm of Daniel Kearney Associates is employed to figure out the connection between disappearing cadillacs in San Francisco and a nationwide network of Gypsies. Colorful characters (to say the least) have a marvelous backdrop with the hard, corrupt, violent San Francisco of the 1990s.

On the far side of Russian Hill, Larry Ballard and Patrick Michael O’Bannon were getting into the elevator at the Montana, a high-rise co-op overlooking bowl-shaped Aquatic park from the foot of Polk Street. The site had been zoned low-rise until certain of the City’s key officials had found their Christmas stockings stuffed with—miracle of miracles!—foreign vacations and new cars and fur coats for their wives. Subsequently—another miracle! the Montana Development Corporation had been granted the supposedly impossible building code variances it sought.

This book tells it like it is. Gores isn’t shy speaking through his characters like Giselle Marc, Trinidad Morales and Ephren Poteet. Even the cadillacs take on a life, especially the 1958 pink El Dorado convertible. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Hammett by Joe Gores (Harper & Row, 1975)

Now, for one of the very best by Joe Gores. Hammett presents the reader with an evocative picture of San Francisco in 1928, with its beauty, corruption, dirty cops and politicians. Gores mixes fact and fiction with this portrait of Samuel Dashiell Hammett, private eye turned writer. In the novel, Hammett avenges the gruesome murder of his friends and attempts to rid The City of corruption. We are taken through those infamous dark, foggy alleys, through Chinatown, the cathouses, the gambling dens. Gores writes:

Wind-driven fog lanced through Hammett’s topcoat as he swings off the trolley on Presidio Avenue. He stood staring through ornate wrought-iron gates: the fog hid the rolling green acres of Laurel Hill Cemetery.

The cemetery is long gone from this once beautiful wind swept hill with thrilling views of downtown San Francisco and the Bay beyond. A modern office complex, housing a portion of the University of California campus, sits on the site of the cemetery. Previous to the University, the complex housed the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company.

Years of writing may have dulled Hammett’s senses, writes Gores, but in a starkly realistic portrayal of the seedier side of San Francisco, he brings about a bittersweet version of justice. The surprise ending adds a forlorn twist. This book is part fictionalized history, part biography, and very engrossing. Gores probes the moody man who wrote classics like The Maltese Falcon.

* * *

Dashiell Hammett lived in San Francisco from between 1921 and 1929. He wrote a number of his best works while living in The City, including a number of Continental Op stories, The Big Knockover, The Dain Curse, Red Harvest, and The Maltese Falcon. Addresses where Hammett lives in San Francisco lived include 620 Eddy Street, 20 Monroe Street, 891 Post Street and 1155 Leavenworth Street. With the exception of Red Harvest, all of the above are set in San Francisco. The flavor of San Francisco (as it was) is evident in Hammett’s tales. The Continental Op and Sam Spade were born in San Francisco. He used the urban fabric of The City to color the stories and his characters are gritty and soiled by their harsh lives.

The Big Knockover by Dashiell Hammett (Alfred A. Knopf, 1929)

“The Big Knockover” first appeared in Black Mask in February 1927. The Continental Op winds through the streets of San Francisco, telling his story of 150 crooks organized to carry out a double bank robbery. The genius who masterminds this feat is named Papadopoulos. After the big job is done, he begins to kill off those who want a share of the take. In the last paragraphs, the Op finds out that, although several of the bad guys are now history, the “brains of the push got away. Now I could turn The City upside down for him.” “$106,000 Blood Money” (Black Mask, May, 1927) is the hunt for Papadopoulos.

The Creeping Siamese by Dashiell Hammett (Dell, 1951)

Hammett wrote a number of Continental Op short stories while living in San Francisco. The Creeping Siamese is a short story collection, and in it appears “The Creeping Siamese” (first serialized in Black Mask in March, 1926). The introduction to the collection is by Erle Stanley Gardner who is quoted as saying: “I think of all the early pulp writers who contributed to the new form of the detective story, the word ‘genius’ was more nearly applicable to Hammett than any of the rest.”

“The Creeping Siamese” begins with the Op standing in the San Francisco offices of Continental Detective Agency when a man walks in and then falls over dead, stabbed in the breast. The wound is stuffed with a piece of red silk sarong. Sleuthing takes the Op to 1856 Broadway, site of an attempted burglary and the occupants say it was an attempt by “four brown men” the call the Creeping Siamese. The murder and burglary are connected. By the way, 1856 Broadway does not exist as that street number would put it somewhere in the Bay.

Included in this collection is “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer” (originally appears in Black Mask, January, 1926). The offices of Hopkin F. Cayterer are in 1021 Seamen’s Bank Building, San Francisco. Mr. Cayterer is the victim of a swindle with foreign overtones as suggested by the arrival of a mysterious letter with a Japanese stamp and a Kobe postmark. However, the Op discovers that the culprit is very close to home in a nearby dark alley.

“The Joke on Eloise Morey” (Brief Stories, June, 1923) is in this collection. Mean old Eloise continues to ridicule and belittle her poor husband Dudley. He has taken all he can and commits suicide, leaving behind a very sad letter which Eloise destroys in a rage. Oh well, she should not have done that…

In “Tom, Dick or Harry”, the Continental Detective Agency investigates a jewel robbery, interviewing the victims in their home, and comes up with five possible scenarios to this crime.

The Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett (Spivak, 1945)

This is a four short story collection and in my 1946 Dell paperback edition, a map of downtown San Francisco is depicted on the outer rear cover. It has a legend and numbered locations indicating the locations referred to in the stories. A nice touch. It has an introduction by Ellery Queen which states: “Meet the detective without a name… meet another of Dashiell Hammett’s wild men from Frisco (author’s note: ouch!)… meet the Continental Op.”

In “The Fly Paper” (originally published in Black Mask in August 1929), wealthy Major Waldo Hambleton goes to the Continental Detective Agency’s New York office, asking to have an eye kept on his daughter Sue. Sue disappears, and a year later, Hambleton receives a telegram from the daughter living at 601 Eddis Street in San Francisco. (Could this be 601 Ellis Street? Currently, 601 Ellis is the site of the Phoenix Hotel.) Enter San Francisco’s Continental Op. He is put on the case to arrange for the daughter’s return home. However, the daughter dies. The question is who poisoned her? When fly paper is found in her kitchen, the Op asks a suspect where one could buy the paper. The suspect replies: “Nobody uses fly paper here in San Francisco, anyway. There aren’t enough flies.”

In “Death on Pine,” another of the four short stories, Mrs. Gilmore wants the Op to find her husband’s murderer. Mr. Gilmore was shot on Pine Street and the murder was caused by a jealous triangle. The real Hall of Justice is mentioned in this story. The real one was on Kearney Street, across from Portsmouth Square, where the Chinatown Holiday Inn now ruins the cityscape. The story ends with the Op walking “up through Portsmouth Square toward a restaurant where the steaks come thick.” Definitely the good old days.

Another short story, “Zig Zags of Treachery” (first appeared in Black Mask on March 1, 1924), takes the reader to the Montgomery Hotel, Union Square and the St. Francis taxi stand. Dr. Esteps dies after a visit by his first wife. Suspects range from the first and second wives to the doctor’s business associates. The mystery is solved when a letter the doctor wrote just before he died is found.

All the Continental Op stories are authentic, hard, street dirty, no frills tales.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (Alfred A. Knopf, 1930)

The Maltese Falcon was serialized in Black Mask, September through December, 1929 and January, 1930, and appeared in book form in 1930 from Alfred A. Knopf. In The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaughnessy comes to Spade and Archer under the guise of finding her sister but the double-crossing dame’s real intentions are to use the two dicks to find the priceless artifact. When Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, is shot, Spade pulls himself out of bed in his apartment at Geary and Hyde to inspect the murder scene at Burritt Alley. A plaque now marks this spot at the alley overlooking the Stockton Tunnel. It reads: “On approximately this spot Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.”

Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill to Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab. San Francisco’s night-fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street.

That’s my kind of town!

Fending off sweet-smelling Joel Cairo and “the fat man” Gutman, Spade allows himself to be tempted by Brigid’s charms. In the end he accepts the fact that she is a murderess. The Falcon in the novel turns out to be a worthless imitation, perhaps the symbol of greed.

Several times Spade refers to San Francisco as “my city” and Hammett experts suggest that a number of San Francisco locations in the novel are actually existing buildings. The Cathedral Apartments, home to Brigid, could be the Coronet at 1201 California Street. The Spade and Archer offices could be in the 111 Sutter building. Gutman’s rooms in the Alexandria are thought to be in the Sir Francis Drake. Joel Cairo’s Belvedere Hotel could be the Bellevue, and the theater tickets he carried in his wallet were for a play at the Geary Theater.

Sam Spade frequented John’s Grill at 63 Ellis Street. Opened in 1908, this great landmark restaurant still serves the Sam Spade special meal: chops with baked potato and sliced tomatoes. The even serve a drink call the Bloody Brigid. John’s Grill has an upstairs Dashiell Hammett room with original editions of his novels under glass and a number of photographed scenes from the Maltese Falcon hanging on the walls. It is usually quiet and dark in this room. I keep hoping I will turn around one day and find Sam Spade eating his meal, looking at me with a glint in his eye—”Here’s looking at you, kid.” Yes, I know, that was a different movie…

The John Marshall Tanner Novels
by Stephen Greenleaf (Seattle, WA)

For 16 years, I’ve been writing detective novels set in San Francisco. When I was trying to sell the first one, Grave Error, everyone in New York who saw it—agents, editors, and the like—told me that while I had a way with words, the mystery genre was dead so if I wanted to be published, I should toss the manuscript in the trash and write science fiction or fantasy. As every mystery reader knows, the “experts” could not have been more wrong—the mystery business is booming. More than a thousand are published each year and the mystery section is by far the busiest in most libraries, with the exception of the “how to” books.

I decided to set my detective novels in San Francisco because at the time I began writing, it was the only urban area I knew well. Since the modern private detective is in effect an urban cowboy, I didn’t have much choice of where to put my hero.

I’d first gone West (from Midwest) in 1964, to attend law school at U. C. Berkeley. Drafted just after graduation, I returned to California after basic training to serve a year at Ft. Ord, on the Monterey Peninsula. Despite my ambivalence about my military experience, I enjoyed the area so much that I returned in 1970, to practice law in Monterey. After three years of practice on the peninsula, and three more in San Francisco, I was more than eager to abandon the law and try my hand at writing fiction. What I hoped to do was write about the Bay Area in the way Ross Macdonald wrote about Southern California.

My detective is named John Marshall Tanner (John Marshall after America’s first Chief Justice; Tanner for reasons of euphony and because I once played for a basketball coach of that name). Tanner lives on the south side of Telegraph Hill and works above an antique store on Hotaling Place. He eats breakfast at Zorba’s and drinks whiskey at Guido’s, both in North Beach and both fictitious establishments. He has a buddy who’s a cop and one who’s a stockbroker. The most important woman in his life has been Peggy Nettleton, his former secretary, but she left town after becoming entwined in a sexual harassment case (Toll Call, 1987) and won’t reappear until next year (Flesh Wounds, 1996).

I’ve written about a variety of subjects over the years: radical politics (Death Bed); legal insanity (Beyond Blame); libel in fiction (Book Case); corporate chicanery (Blood Type); and racism (Southern Cross). Although his home has always been San Francisco, Tanner has ventured to Berkeley (Beyond Blame), to Iowa (Fatal Obsession), and even to South Carolina (Southern Cross). The next time out he will visit Seattle (Flesh Wounds).

Like me, my detective is a former lawyer. He stopped practicing after the legal system drove one of his clients to suicide and Tanner was jailed for contempt for insulting the judge who let it happen. Unlike me, Tanner is not getting older—he has been pushing 50 for fifteen years. When I started writing, he was a veteran of the Korean War; now he is a veteran of Vietnam. He used to be older than I was and I had to guess at his state of mind. Now he is younger, so I know exactly what’s bothering him. (What’s been bothering him for the last three books is a mid-life crisis brought on by a combination of age, depression, career shortcomings, and an unfulfilling personal life. But I think he’s finally coming out of it.)

My most recent novel, False Conception, had its genesis in an article in California Lawyer magazine on the subject of surrogate motherhood. At one point, the author observed that at the time of its birth, a child born of a surrogate mother can have six different parents. Six parents equals six suspects in my line of work, so I seized on the subject as a milieu for mystery in keeping with my interest in addressing realistic social issues in my work. It was particularly appropriate also because in recent years I have sought alternatives to murder as the moral and emotional engine for my novels, and a struggle over the fate of an unborn child seemed to suffice as a substitute. The focus in False Conception also allowed me to enlarge Tanner’s emotional horizons in ways that will be expanded in future books.

In False Conception, Tanner is hired to investigate the lifestyle of a proposed surrogate mother to make sure she has no bad habits that might endanger the fetus. Tanner gives her a clean bill of health, the embryo is implanted, and Tanner believes the case is closed. A month later, he is asked to check her out once more, to make sure nothing has changed, and he reports the status remains quo. A short time later, the surrogate disappears.

The contracting parents are dismayed and the lawyer who hired Tanner to clear the surrogate is outraged; Tanner is directed to find the woman. He learns that the arrangement with the surrogate had several unusual aspects and she might have reason to terminate the pregnancy in order to thwart the hopes of the parents. Others have conflicting interests in the child; feuds and frustrations from the past play a part as well. When the surrogate is finally found, more surprises surface.

It’s not clear what lies in store for Tanner in the future, but the ten novels that comprise his history have been both a challenge and a source of satisfaction for me. Tanner has been, in Chandler’s phrase, a man “fit for adventure.” He has also been, in important respects, my teacher. I owe him a great deal for what he has let me learn.