Time travel

The Dashiell Hammett Tour leads the curious through San Francisco's alluring underbelly

Discover the ways in which the writer's vision still applies to the city today


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.

Also from this author

  • Shaking the city

    Chris Carlsson's new book takes on the legacy of 1960s SF

  • Call of the grisly

    Paco Ignacio Taibo II constructs a guide to corruption in Mexico City Noir

  • St. Elvis?

    John Carpenter-directed biopic Elvis resurfaces