Listen here, ya mugs!
I’m a longtime lover of detective fiction. Naturally, that would include the classics of the genre — and there are no private eyes in the literary world more classic than Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. Coincidentally, one of these literary gumshoes worked my City by the Bay, and the other prowled my Southland HQ, the City of the Angels. To be more specific, Spade’s noir-ish turf consisted of the mean streets of San Francisco or, if you will, the shadowy corners of the Barbary Coast, while Marlowe made his rounds on the sun-bleached, high-end boulevards and sin-soaked back alleys of Los Angeles. Just the sort of environs where Mike the Knife (my underworld persona) is right at home.
I totally understand how San Francisco must have inspired Hammett and his terse, no-nonsense journalistic style. Most nights in this hilly wonderland whisper mystery as the fog creeps in under the Golden Gate Bridge and over Mount Sutro, sidling into Chinatown and North Beach. It’s on nights like that when you can imagine shady antiques dealers and their henchmen executing a break-in at a Geary Street gallery and absconding with a priceless statue destined for the South of Market warehouse offices of an import-export company. And a relentless P.I. in hot pursuit. Hammett’s characters are dark, driven creatures or possessed of a liquid in their veins that’s colder than the winter swells off Fort Point.
Have you ever actually torn into a T-bone at John’s Grill on Ellis Street? This Tenderloin destination was an actual setting in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and a vital stop for fans of Sam Spade (whether we mean the guy in the books or the one portrayed on screen by the immortal Humphrey Bogart). Sitting at the bar in John’s Grill and downing a Scotch is probably as close as you’re going to get to the Sam Spade experience — unless you’re beaten in a nearby alley by a gunsel and wake up with a hangover the size of the Hindenburg — and just as likely to explode and go down in flames.
Speaking of the movie version of The Maltese Falcon, Hollywood was wild about the exploits of hard-boiled dicks and crime fiction from the 1930s through the 1950s, as studios adapted popular novels and commissioned original scripts in the genre. It was the heyday of film noir, and one can’t help but think that the desperation and class distinctions that are the underside of the Tinseltown dream of stardom and riches helped fuel the authors and filmmakers. And the most iconic of Los Angeles mystery writers was Raymond Chandler.
Today, James Ellroy writes terrific novels in the Chandler tradition, usually period pieces such as The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential — the latter turned into a compelling, award-winning feature film. And similarly, timeless crime movies such as Chinatown are, in most ways, the spawn of Chandler’s gritty prose, conflicted heroes, manipulative villains, and amoral shenanigans. From The Big Sleep to The Long Goodbye to Farewell, My Lovely and more, Chandler’s tales of hard-luck tough guys, devastating dames, and twisted ne’r-do-wells in the L.A. Basin set a standard for trenchant dialogue, witty narrative, and dark drama rife with fateful retribution. And though they may seem from a long-gone black-and-white world, these creations of his took pretty well to director Robert Altman’s sharp, savvy, early 1970s, post-Love Generation sex-and-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll update of The Long Goodbye, starring a wry and laconic Elliot Gould as Marlowe — a role that would seem better suited to another screen Marlowe, Robert Mitchum, but fit Gould like a rumpled, well-worn suit.
Even today, Chandler’s characters seem to lurk around every corner as the sun goes down and a sultry evening starts to unfold with the scent of jasmine wafting through the air from the garden entrance of a Los Feliz bungalow. They’re on the block when you make your way to a cocktail lounge downtown on 6th at Spring for a libation, and they’re in the booth next to yours when you head back to Hollywood for a nightcap at Musso & Frank — a decades-old watering hole where Chandler, Bogie, Mitchum, and their peers used to hold court.
And yes, when I dine at Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard or the venerable Tadich Grill in S.F.’s Financial District, I will occasionally take a moment and imagine myself as the gritty, resilient protagonist of a detective novel — preferably one written by Chandler or Hammett.