“Around this location, Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner, was assassinated by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.” So says a plaque on a building at the corner of Burritt Alley and Bush Street in downtown San Francisco. This is a nice residential block on a cul-de-sac; It is not the ideal location for a murder, but of course this murder only happened in the pages of Dashiell Hammett’s “Maltese Falcon”.
As I’ll discover as I make my way through the Sam Spade neighborhood, San Francisco residents are happy to pretend that Sam and that motley crew of hawk hunters, the mysterious Miss Wonderly, the greasy little Joel Cairo, and the chillingly cool Gutman actually traveled. by the city. blocks around Union Square in pursuit of the shiny black bird.
This claim requires a bit of effort because Dashiell Hammett did not indulge in the elaborate setting of the scene. The more detailed description in The Maltese Falcon consists of one sentence: Spade has received the call that recounts the murder of Miles; Call a yellow taxi company. The taxi drops him “where Bush Street roofed Stockton before it slid down the hill into Chinatown.”
Sam Spade’s San Francisco ignores everything that postcards and that song and travelers, including myself, associate with the city. “Little Cable Cars Don’t Climb Halfway to the Stars” or anywhere else in Sam Spade’s world. There’s hardly a hilly feel that can turn even a walk across the block for breakfast into a calf stretch hike. The “roof” of Bush Street in Stockton only hints at the way this city rises and falls down Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, the three heights that separate Sam Spade from a blue ocean, an orange bridge and a beautiful bay. that he never seems to see.
As I walk through the world of Sam Spade, I realize how small he is. This is dark and bustling San Francisco, the part that turns its back on all the blue sea and sky and all those gabled pastel-painted Victorian houses clinging so optimistically to those cruel hills. As I ride the Hyde Street cable car from Nob to Russian Hill at that point as it turns down to the Pacific, San Francisco looks to me as if it just came out of the laundry room all fresh, blue and white, hanging to dry in the sun from the sun. morning.
But Hammett’s characters don’t have time to look at such beauty. After all, they are in search of a much more elusive beauty: “the stuff that dreams are made of,” as Bogart said in the movie (but Hammett didn’t in the book): black enamel, solid gold, jewelry inlays. hawk that will consume all your ambition and energy and finally escape from all of them.
Hammett gives his characters very occasional amusement. Joel Cairo attends a show at the Geary Theater. They are currently showing Moliere’s Misanthrope; A Christmas Carol is announced for the holidays. It’s hard to imagine Joel Cairo attending either of them. He wouldn’t have had to walk far from his Hotel Belvedere. In her true incarnation as Bellevue, she was only a block away from Geary and Taylor. These days it has been reborn as the Monaco, an elegant “fantasy” boutique hotel where upturned Vuitton trunks serve as reception and hot air balloons on trompe l’oeil ceilings race through fluffy clouds.
There is an occasional mention of San Francisco’s nighttime fog, “thin, sticky, and penetrating,” but most of the time, Falcon’s characters move through a world of interiors: Sam’s office, his apartment, Sam’s apartment. Brigid and several hotel suites.
Dashiell Hammett worked for a time as a detective in San Francisco. He moved around a lot but lived at 891 Post Street for a while and that’s where he put Sam Spade’s apartment. When I ask a restaurant waiter if it’s a safe area to visit at night, he shrugs and says, “It’s a gay ghetto after dark …”
Hammett gave Spade an office in a splendid 1926 building at 111 Sutter Street. The hall and the marble walls and the beamed ceiling look more like the entrance to a Medici palace. The doorman, the maintenance guy, anyone in the hallway knows this is where “Sam Spade had his office, on the fifth floor.”
In another of Hammett’s short stage instructions, Spade says, “Have him pick me up at John’s, Ellis Street.” And there, the detective asks the waiter to rush his order for “chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes.” In 1997, John’s Grill was declared a National Literary Landmark. For $ 29, a visitor can still order those chops. If they do, they should try eating them in the upstairs dining room, where Hammett’s books and a replica of the Maltese Falcon are kept in a glass case at the entrance.
But something is missing. Sam Spade could recognize the look of the place, but probably not the smell. There is no smoke. And the smokers lurking outside his office building in Sutter, sneaking smoking during a short American lunch break, are a reminder that Sam and his mink-clad ladies have been left behind by another century.