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On the Hammett Trail

July 17, 1988|JAMES A. MARTIN | Martin is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

--Columnist Herb Caen, on the San Francisco of the Roaring '20s

During the 1920s this was Dashiell Hammett's kind of town, dangerous, exciting, lawless--the sort of place that stirred the creative juices of a veteran private detective with ambitions of becoming a writer.

These days Fog City is considerably less rambunctious than it was during the flapper era. But for $5 you can spend 3 1/2 hours in the San Francisco of Hammett's day, a time when villains committed dark deeds under a cloak of chilled night fog, a place where ace investigator Sam Spade walked the nocturnal streets gathering evidence, shadowing suspects, rolling cigarettes.

To travel back to Hammett's San Francisco of the '20s, plant yourself on the steps of the San Francisco Public Library (Larkin and McAllister streets) at noon on any Saturday, May through August, and watch for a suspicious character in a London Fog overcoat and fedora.

The mystery man will be Don Herron, a writer/cab driver and would-be gumshoe and creator of the Dashiell Hammett Tour of San Francisco. He will lead you down alleys and up hills, through the street life of the Tenderloin and the glamour/clamor of Nob Hill, back down to the commercial chaos of Union Square and finally into a restaurant-bar in the Financial District.

In the Words of Spade

Herron will tell you about murder, extortion, alcoholism, adultery, tuberculosis. And, in the immortal words of Sam Spade, as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 film version of Hammett's novel, "The Maltese Falcon": "You'll take it . . . and you'll like it."

Hammett was larger than life, Herron explains, a hard-boiled, no-nonsense man who chased criminals and women, created vivid, memorable characters, drank too much, suffered from tuberculosis yet chain-smoked, made and spent a million dollars, supported radical politics, and was jailed and blacklisted for refusing to name names during the McCarthy era.

Although the author of "The Maltese Falcon" (1929) and "The Thin Man" (1933) made his name and fortune years later in New York and Hollywood, it was in San Francisco that Hammett set aside his career as an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and began pecking away at his typewriter.

Hammett lived in San Francisco from 1921 to 1929 and, because of later troubles with writer's block, alcoholism and the McCarthy blacklist, completed the majority of his writing here. The Prohibition-era city of hills and hoods is the vivid setting for three of Hammett's five novels and 28 short stories.

Raymond Chandler, whose private eye yarns such as "The Big Sleep" adeptly captured 1930s Los Angeles, best summed up Hammett's success as a writer: "Hammett did not write detective stories at all--merely hard-boiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini."

Quit School at 14

On the library steps, Herron briefs you on the Hammett file. Born May 27, 1894, in St. Mary's County, Md., Samuel Dashiell Hammett grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. He quit high school at age 14 to help support the family. As a young man, Hammett worked at a variety of menial jobs.

Herron quotes from a letter in which Hammett explained his early employment record: "I became the unsatisfactory and unsatisfied employee of various railroads, stockbrokers, machine manufacturers, canners, and the like. Usually I was fired."

In Baltimore, Hammett was brought in as an operative for Pinkerton. It was, according to Herron, "a deciding moment for popular fiction," as Hammett's five years with the agency gave him a colorful cast of characters and a score of pulp magazine plots. As a Pinkerton detective Hammett traveled America, eventually landing in a Tacoma, Wash., hospital with tuberculosis. He moved to San Francisco in 1921 to marry his nurse, Josephine Dolan.

The first stop on the Hammett walk is 620 Eddy St., a four-story 1920s apartment house in the street-wise Tenderloin area, where Chinese children play in an alley and a barefoot woman stands on a corner cursing an unseen enemy.

The building was recently painted baby blue and is directly across from the Phoenix, an eccentric hotel popular with visiting rock stars. Hammett, his wife and daughter lived in this building for five years.

Days in the Library

It was the couple's first San Francisco apartment, a $25-a-month flat with a Murphy bed in the hallway and rum runners for landlords. Having quit Pinkerton because of poor health, Hammett spent numerous days in the nearby library, developed an interest in fiction, and set his mind to writing, slugging out 50 "Continental Op" mysteries.

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