Hammett Starred in San Francisco : Literature: Author brought mystery genre out of the drawing room with such yarns as 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'The Thin Man.' This year is the centennial of his birth.


Author Dashiell Hammett, who hauled the detective story out of genteel drawing rooms and into the mean streets, timed it about right when he was born 100 years ago in May.

Mystery writer Linda Grant says that month is when readers begin stocking up on books for vacation.

Hammett, born May 27, 1894, will undoubtedly be on many shopping lists, since such classics as "The Maltese Falcon," "The Dain Curse," "The Glass Key," "Red Harvest" and "The Thin Man" are required reading for mystery fans.

Hammett entered this world in Great Mills, Md., described as "just a spot in the road" by Lois Coryell, the reference librarian for St. Mary's County, Md.

"Some distant relatives still live here, but there's nothing planned that I know of to mark the occasion," she said about the anniversary of Hammett's birth.

The event may have gone unnoticed there, but it certainly isn't forgotten in San Francisco, where Hammett was first published and wrote most of his novels.

Grant and fellow members of the Mystery Writers of America have devoted an entire issue of Mystery Week Magazine to Hammett. They've also held Hammett panel discussions and a walking tour of the many spots in San Francisco associated with the author.

Remembering Hammett is a minor industry in his adopted city. Don Herron, appropriately clad in trench coat and snap brim hat, led similar treks for 18 years.

Now semi-retired, Herron took small groups to places where Hammett lived or worked and to the haunts given a life of their own in his books.

A must is Burritt Street, where a bronze plaque has been erected. It sums up in one sentence why the alley is the most popular Hammett site in San Francisco: "On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy."

There's also John's Grill, a well-known eatery since 1908 whose most famous meal existed only on paper. In his search for the elusive falcon, Spade takes time to order "chops, baked potato and sliced tomatoes" at John's.

Now packed with Hammett memorabilia, John's, where the phone number is 986-DASH, is a mecca for his fans.

Many people are lured to the tours by the movie adaptations of Hammett's books, Herron said.

"Everybody's seen the movies," he said. "Hammett made it in all media. He had radio shows. All were successful. The only thing I know of that flopped was a Nick and Nora musical that bombed."

Herron, author of "The Literary World of San Francisco & Its Environs," rates Hammett's San Francisco as "one of the great literary treatments of a city." He places it in the same category as James Joyce's Dublin or Charles Dickens' London "for its evocation of place and time, the days in the 1920s when night fog cloaked the hills and a certain fat man was afoot."

That may seem like hyperbole, but Herron's praise is added to a long list of kudos, including Raymond Chandler's view that Hammett "wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."

Earlier detective novels often were refined and bloodless, with suspects gathered in the mansion drawing room to hear the sleuth expound logic and exclaim: "The butler did it."

Sure, there were some tough guy gumshoes in the pulp magazines of the 1920s where Hammett, who died in 1961, got his start. But Hammett gave them long-lasting life in his books.

Hammett, along with Chandler, established "the tradition many of us write out of today, a sub-genre that is enjoying a second golden age," said Grant, a Berkeley author whose most recent novel is "A Woman's Place."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World