I won’t deny I felt some trepidation situating my Private Detective, Declan Colette, in San Francisco. True, Chandler’s Marlowe roams LA and Stout’s Wolf lords over New York, but, for me, Dashiel Hammett was the great father of PI mysteries. And both Sam Spade and the Continental Op cast some long shadows.
Of course, it helps that I spent most of my adult life living in the City. I like to think I know my way around it. It’s true that keen local eyes may notice I took some liberties with the architecture of Pierce Street, but for the most part, I’ve endeavored to describe the City I know and love with a heartfelt fidelity. (Actually, what I did was transplant the longitudinally equivalent block of Jones Street—an area I briefly inhabited and who’s character fit my story wonderfully. I wanted Declan’s office closer to Japantown and the Fillmore District.)
I grew up in a small town nestled in the heart of California’s central valley. I remember it as a peacefully rural place—something you’d find in a William Saroyan tale. The edge of town was a mere three blocks north of the street I grew up on; our backyard bordered a large open field that grew tall mustard in the summer, perfect for playing Hide-and-Seek or War. Kids, myself included, used to rove outside barefoot in those days—which is probably why, to this day, I keep current on my Tetanus booster shots. Dogs, bicycles, treehouses, swingsets and crudely constructed forts played a large part in my daily life.
When we visited San Francisco, which was rare, I recall never being particularly keen on it. It was too much stone, too much teeming with life (and the variety of that life, I am sorry to say, frightened me). Mostly it was too compact—a great city squeezed onto a small parcel of hilly land, surrounded on three sides by water. I was born on the flat expanse of a valley floor; the city made me feel claustrophobic.
But, like most transplants, it didn’t take me living there long to fall under the City’s spell. I loved the various modes of transport—including my own feet—which offered close-up glimpses of the nooks and crannies of a city that, rather like Disneyland, lacked the acreage and was forced to expand in upon itself (and upward, too, though no where near as often nor high as many east coast cities). I walked a lot in San Francisco. For a while, to work every day. A straight friend once commented, as we followed a few female office workers along the sidewalk, that the pedestrian lifestyle made for some of the greatest legs and rear-ends on offer anywhere in the country. Falling a step behind him, I paused, assessed, and told him he was right.
I also liked the alleyways. San Francisco offers some of the greatest and most unique alleyways in the U.S. I’d call them almost European (especially Belden, try it some Bastille Day). Remember when alleys used to be synonymous with refuse and danger? Not in San Francisco. There isn’t room enough to discard so much potential living space.
And, of course, there’s the elephant in this essay—the gays. By the time I was about ten, I knew (to misquote Michael Jackson’s Thriller video) “I wasn’t like other boys.” I also possessed, however mysteriously gained, a vague notion that San Francisco was a Mecca for what in those days were still cavalierly referred to as ‘perverts’ and ‘sexual deviants’. At the time, this was more a repellent than an attraction, which probably explains why I moved to San Diego after high school rather than San Francisco. But, ultimately, it was what made the City for me, as I hear it does for so many transplants from much further away, feel like home.
But wait, wait, wait. This was supposed to be about transplanting Declan Colette to the City, not me. He was one of those who originated further away: born in Mississippi, then shipped off to Chicago and only coming to San Francisco when World War 2 started to heat up. He also found kindred spirits in the City—though admittedly not the sort of community (or “communities” is probably a better word, since SF boasts several vibrant gay scenes) a lucky transplant finds today. And, like many of us, San Francisco may prove his redemption. That remains to be seen (and is not quite answered in his first adventure). But he does find purpose—or at least work he appears to have an aptitude for. And having survived the war, that may be enough for a start.
On the cover of the Bold Strokes Book edition, the man shown looks to me rather like Dashiel Hammett (who, remember, placed his Sam Spade and Continental Op in SF). I had nothing to do with creating the cover except to say ‘Yes, I love it,’ when asked. (I think the rhino’s cute too.) In my head, Colette doesn’t look anything like Hammett (Colette’s heavier for one thing; Hammett was gaunt and tubercular most of his life), but maybe the picture is of one of the other detectives in the story (there are at least two more). And Hammett did live in the City for a period. So I find the cover not just appropriate but somewhat poignant—it sort of admits to that confession with which I started this story: I knew Colette would be struggling with some long shadows. It also reminds me: ‘Boy, I wish I could write as well as Hammett did!’
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