Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco:
A Unique Setting in the Changing World of Early 20th Century Detective Fiction
The Pacific coast port city of San Francisco, California provides a distinctively mysterious backdrop in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Unlike many other detective stories that are anchored in well-known metropolises such as Los Angeles or New York City, Hammett opted to place the events of his text in the lesser-known, yet similarly exotic cultural confines of San Francisco. Hammett used his own intricate knowledge of the San Francisco Bay Area - coupled with details collected during a stint as a detective for the now defunct Pinkerton Agency - to craft a distinctive brand of detective fiction that thrived on such an original setting (Paul 93). By examining the setting of 1920's San Francisco in The Maltese Falcon, it becomes apparent that one of Hammett's literary strengths was his exceptional ability to intertwine non-fictional places with a fictional plot and characters in order to produce a logical and exceedingly believable detective mystery.
Dashiell Hammett called the San Francisco area home from 1920 until 1936. For a portion of those fourteen years, he shared an apartment on Eddy Street with his first wife Josephine Dolan. This apartment was located very near the San Francisco Public Library on Larkin Street where in 1921 Hammett first conceived the idea of his writing detective fiction. San Francisco historian and author Don Freeman explains:
In the library he would read the magazines and the books and one day after reading several detective yarns he said, I can do that.' The truth is, he could. And he did. He wrote for Black Mask, a pulp detective magazine, and then as his skills increased he began to write novels. It was in this library that Dashiell Hammett saw his future. (79)
Hammett contributed stories to Black Mask for ten years until The Maltese Falcon gained public and literary acclaim. Many of the stories that Hammett penned for Black Mask were set in San Francisco, as the city provided him with a unique atmosphere in which to observe and record different cultures, norms, and fads. In the 1920's, San Francisco was thought of as an exotic melting pot of culture that was rivaled only by its eastern cultural counterpart of New York City. Therefore, it is no surprise that Hammett used San Francisco as the setting of The Maltese Falcon to further illustrate the exotic and striking nature of the plot and characters within the text (Dumenil 211).
Since the dawn of modern American detective fiction, many mystery writers have chosen metropolitan cities with high incidences of murder and theft as the setting for their stories. When the public is informed about some heinous crime committed in these non-fictional urban settings, it makes the author's fictional setting and plot seem all the more realistic (Baker & Nietzel 15). The plot of The Maltese Falcon would not be nearly as believable if it were set in Omaha, since people do not automatically associate crime with the Nebraska town. Incidentally, several 1920's and 1930's writers became linked to the cities in which their stories were set. For example, Raymond Chandler became synonymous with detective fiction that was based in or near Los Angeles, and Fredric Brown's work was linked to Al Capone's hometown of Chicago (Baker & Nietzel 36). Likewise, Hammett used the city of San Francisco - and all of the vast scenery and culture that it provided as his own personal writing territory for The Maltese Falcon. Up until the 1920's very few writers had based their text in San Francisco: Thus, Hammett's use of the Bay City as a setting added an original variation to the already changing face of twentieth century American detective stories.
The Maltese Falcon begins in a sparsely furnished, three-room office on Sutter Street in the Kearney section of San Francisco. It is in this office that the reader...
Cited: Baker, Robert and Nietzel, Michael T. Private Eyes: One Hundred and One
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Dumenil, Lynn. Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920 's.
New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.
Freeman, Don. "Sam Spade 's San Francisco." Saturday Evening Post.
Hammett, Dashiell. The Maltese Falcon. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Paul, Robert S. Whatever Happened to Sherlock Holmes: Detective Fiction,
Popular Theology, and Society. Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
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