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[whitespace] Dashiell Hammett anthology Death in the Fog: Don Herron, mock-gumshoe docent, is an encyclopedia of local Hammett-iana.


Hammett Dash

A walking 'Jeopardy' question conducts his essential literary walking tour

By Dara Colwell

Off the corner of Eddy and Larkin, across from the Phoenix hotel and yards from a handful of run-down Vietnamese restaurants, there's a small apartment building--a typical solid building with iron fire escapes obscuring its front--where Dashiell Hammett wrote the bulk of his literary work. Suffering from tuberculosis and hunched over a typewriter placed on the kitchen table, the author of The Maltese Falcon, who pioneered the "hard-boiled" American detective story, began writing--as he later claimed--"to keep the butcher away from the door while I tried to bluff the baker."

The exploits of the former detective--a debonair alcoholic who lived in a succession of apartments on Eddy, Post, Turk, Hyde and Leavenworth streets--are something tour guide Don Herron knows well. Herron is a cab driver with a penchant for hard-boiled crime fiction. He has been conducting the Dashiell Hammett walking tour since 1977, and he likes to flesh out the role. Shuffling along in a worn olive trench coat and hat, its brim outlined by a streak of camel-colored ribbon, Herron isn't exactly Bogart but he does look the part--that of a gumshoe detective hitting the mean streets of San Francisco. And Herron hits the streets for hours at a time--some tours last four-and-a-half hours.

But unlike Hammett's characters--terse, two-fisted drinkers with unflinching cynicism--Herron is approachable. He even has a dimple on his left cheek. Dressed in a red T-shirt with "Miles Archer gave his life for tourism" written in black letters, and early-morning sleep in the corners of his bespectacled eyes, Herron begins the tour where all good fiction hails--from the library.

Now for those unfamiliar with Hammett--the author who created The Dain Curse, Red Harvest, The Big Knockover and hundreds of nickel-and-dime pieces of pulp fiction--Herron's tour can be a barrage of dizzying references. But hold tight. The author's world, entrenched in a time of speakeasies and organized crime with San Francisco's perennial fog as its backdrop, may have changed a great deal since Hammett settled here in 1921, but the draw of urban crime remains the same.

As the sun blazes across City Hall's golden dome, Herron outlines the facts. A self-taught writer who never finished high school, Hammett grew up in Philadelphia and Baltimore. At the age of 21, while thumbing through job ads he came across one that was so oddly worded it drew him to Baltimore's Continental Building, the office of the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency. The agency had been in the crime-busting business for 65 years, spying on Confederates, foiling assassinations and breaking up all kinds of rough business. Pinkerton's famous logo--a single, unblinking eye--brought the term "private eye" into usage, but in Hammett's day, employees were called "operatives" or ops. Hammett was hired, and the job, which involved more strike-breaking than shadowing waxy characters, gave Hammett a thorough schooling in the streets.

By the time Hammett arrived in San Francisco, after years of sleuthing and a stint in the Army, his health was shattered. Holed up with his new wife, a pretty young nurse he had met while recuperating from tuberculosis, in their tiny Eddy Street apartment, Hammett began writing, pounding out copy for Samuel's Jewelers on Market Street. He also started writing short stories for the pulp magazines or the pulps, so called because of the cheap quality of the paper between the luridly drawn covers. At only 10 cents a copy, the pulps drew in the literate working class, who pored over stories of bigger-than-life heroes, scheming women and menacing villains. For Hammett, who could draw from his wealth of on-the-job experience, writing for the pulps came easy. Hammett's voice, based in the blunt vernacular of the streets, would come to influence generations of writers.

As Herron guides the group into a back alley on Olive Street, lined by garbage tipsters and dusty parked cars, he stops and leans forward. "Now a test on how much you know about Dashiell Hammett," he says rather smugly, anticipating the upcoming response. "Who knows who Sam Spade is?" he asks. Everyone raises their hands quickly. Spade, of course, is the detective in The Maltese Falcon, the role model for the classic gumshoe detective. "OK, who knows about the Continental Op?" Everyone raises their hands, save this reporter.

This is unusual and it pleases Herron, who knows today's group is full of well-versed Hammett experts. The Continental Op, Hammett's aggressive, fat and nameless protagonist of the same series, once ate a meal here at No. 70, a red brick building tagged with graffiti and bearing the name "Blanco's" in faded white paint. The building, once full of banquet rooms, now houses the Great American Music Hall.

As Herron winds his tour through the Tenderloin toward the apartment where Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, past porn shops and run-down delis, he points out a trail of dried blood. This is real. The maroon-speckled trail twists around pieces of old chewing gum stuck to the sidewalk on Larkin and Geary. Even in the innocuous afternoon sun, it looks eerie. The mean streets of noir fiction are suddenly all too real. No one says anything, so Herron tries to lighten the mood. "My biggest achievement is that I was a question on Jeopardy," he says proudly as he continues walking: "Don Herron gives a tour of Dashiell Hammett in this city." Someone responds immediately, "What is San Francisco!"

The tour's highlight has to be 891 Post St. Here, in a top-floor apartment in the three-story red-brick building, Hammett punched out the novel that made his name in Hollywood. Here, fact and fiction melt together. This was also where Spade lived and where the treacherous Brigid O'Shaughnessy lied repeatedly--and lied well.

Hammett moved into the apartment after separating from his wife, and the tiny studio, which now rents for $800 to an architect, is a definite bachelor pad. For a man in continual precarious health, Hammett drank, smoked, caroused and chased skirts with fervor. The room, which was in the process of being refinished to remain true to the novel, is like a lived-in museum piece. Old black-and-white photographs deck the walls, and an old typewriter lies on a dark wooden desk next to a wall bed tucked away behind a large mirror. A black hat and overcoat are draped on a door wedged up against the wall; empty packets of cigarettes litter the floor.

Taped along the walls, typed yellowed excerpts from The Maltese Falcon place its characters in the apartment. "She came out of the bedroom whistling En Cuba," reads the one in the kitchen. " 'Shall I make the bed?' she asked." She, of course, is Brigid O'Shaughnessy.

From Post Street, Herron continues, a little winded, uphill, winding through Nob Hill to just above the Stockton tunnel. Here, on the corner of Burritt and Bush streets, lies a silent, dead-end alley flanked by grayish apartment buildings. On one building, next to the only window containing any life--a plant box full of succulent cactus and a withering vine--is a bronze plaque. It reads: "On approximately this spot Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaughnessy." This was the first murder in The Maltese Falcon. Back in Hammett's day it was a vacant lot-the kind of place where a feisty femme fatale could easily get away with murder.

Herron always wraps up the tour at John's Grill on Ellis Street, where Sam Spade ordered "chops, baked potatoes, [and] sliced tomatoes." Hammett's favorite dish. Given the chance to wax philosophical about his favorite author, Herron doesn't pause for a moment. "San Francisco did as much for Hammett as Hammett did for San Francisco," says the cab driver, who also hits the city streets after dark. As much as comparing his tour to the author himself, Herron reflects, "If you're around long enough you have periods of neglect. Hammett will never fall out of favor. The hard-boiled story is a hot ticket."


Five of Dashiell Hammett's novels--Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key and The Thin Man-- have recently been reprinted in a scrupulous, sewn-bound edition by the Library of America ($35).

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From the December 20, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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