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The San Francisco private eye and the Maltese falcon

Still from The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart. photo: ©Warner Bros.

Authors have always loved to write about San Francisco and have set the action of their novels in the city. A few that come to mind are McTeague by Frank Norris; A Girl of Forty by Herbert Gold, and his latest, When a Psychopath Falls in Love; The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan; Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, and my favorite with San Francisco as a backdrop, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

Hammett, the writer of hard-boiled detective novels, lived in San Francisco during the 1920s. He was a private eye for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and his office was located in the Flood Building on Market Street. He saw the seamy side of San Francisco close up. In his off hours, he applied himself to the typewriter. Among his works are The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, Red Harvest, and The Dain Curse. Hammett once said: “All my characters were based on people I’ve known personally, or known about.” The action of The Maltese Falcon and The Dain Curse take place in San Francisco. Hammett, who had a longtime romantic relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman, died in 1961.


In The Maltese Falcon, a murder takes place in an alley off Bush Street above the Stockton Street tunnel. A character checks into the St. Mark Hotel — a combination of the Mark Hopkins and the Fairmont. Another is told to hock jewelry at a pawn shop at Fifth and Mission Streets, where the San Francisco Chronicle is located. Yet another has lunch at the Palace Hotel. A bad guy goes to a play in the Geary Theater. A taxicab takes a woman to the Ferry Building. Alcatraz foghorns blow.


And notably, two detectives, one from the San Francisco Police Department, the other a private eye, have lunch at John’s Grill on Ellis Street. The private eye asks the waiter to hurry his order of … “chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes.” The brief passage that takes place in John’s Grill has over the years since the book was first published in 1929 become a masterful marketing tool for the still-existing restaurant that was opened in 1908. The second floor features a museum of Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon memorabilia — including an impressive casting of the black falcon. And on the menu one will find Sam Spade Lamb Chops.


The best line from the book about the hard-boiled detective Sam Spade is, “I won’t play the sap for you.” Sam is speaking to the beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a devious counterbalance for the tough detective.

A few moments earlier in the complicated murder mystery, with Brigid standing very close to Sam and inviting him to kiss her, he utters these unforgettable lines: “I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you,” and “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.”


I’m sorry if I spoiled this by revealing the book’s ending. I’m assuming you are of literary bent and that you have probably read The Maltese Falcon or seen the classic 1941 movie directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Sydney Greenstreet as the “Fatman” Casper Gutman, and Peter Lorre as the repulsive Joel Cairo.

It’s time for you to read The Maltese Falcon once again. And time to go to John’s Grill for the chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes.

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