Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hills of Homicide:
The Mysteries of San Francisco -- Books

(Editor’s note: Janet Rudolph is the organizer of Mystery Readers International and the editor of Mystery Readers Journal. She also blogs at Mystery Fanfare. Below, Rudolph offers a rundown of her 10--plus one--favorite San Francisco-backdropped crime novels.)

This list is limited to the City and County of San Francisco and does not include mysteries that are principally set in cities or towns of the surrounding eight counties (though characters in the stories may travel to those places for short periods). All of the books are filled with San Francisco color. The city is lucky that so many great writers have been inspired by its history and attributes!

It’s interesting to note that many of the authors on my list have either won or were nominated for Edgar Awards.

1. The Maltese Falcon (1930), by Dashiell Hammett. The quintessential San Francisco mystery--the alleys, streets, fog, and noir of the City by the Bay. Sam Spade is the most famous San Francisco detective. No further explanation needed.

2. Death and Taxes (1941), by David Dodge. It stars James “Whit” Whitney, a tax accountant turned detective in 1940s San Francisco. Dodge was an excellent writer with a real sense of the city. He actually made taxes and tax investigation exciting.

3. Murder on Russian Hill (1938), by Lenore Glen Offord. Offord was a former mystery book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, who really knew her city. Protagonist Coco Hastings gets caught up in the investigation of her boss, after she finds him dead in his Russian Hill apartment. This novel takes place at the time of the building of the Bay Bridge and the demise of the ferryboats--both important events in the shaping of modern San Francisco.

4. Dragonfire (1982), by Bill Pronzini. Really, I could have picked pretty much any of Pronzini’s more than 30 Nameless Detective novels, but Dragonfire is my choice because it takes place in the narrow alleyways of Chinatown. It offers lots of great local color. (Other Chinatown-centered crime novels of note: Kelli Stanley’s City of Dragons [2010] and Tim Maleeny’s Stealing the Dragon [2007]).

5. The Sourdough Wars (1992), by Julie Smith. Sourdough bread is the San Francisco treat. The city’s bakeries still guard their starters, so it’s a short skip and a hop from the real world to the printed page. Smith works abundant local landmarks into this tale. An early “foodie” San Francisco mystery.

6. 32 Cadillacs (1992), by Joe Gores. Actually, any of the DKA mysteries belong on my list, but 32 Cadillacs offers a real sense of the Mission District and the different types of people who populate San Francisco. Think Repo Man in the deft hands of Joe Gores.

7. Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977), by Marcia Muller. The first book in the Sharon McCone private-eye series. It’s always good to start with the opening entry in a series. This novel has McCone involved in a succession of antiques shop break-ins. Plenty of Victorian houses, too.

8. The Lonely Hunter (1969), by Collin Wilcox. Wilcox wrote several San Francisco crime series, but this book features Detective Sergeant Frank Hastings and takes place in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood just two years after the Summer of Love. Need I say more?

9. The House of Blue Lights (1987), by Robert J. Bowman. This tale is set in San Francisco’s formerly sleazy, now still a bit sleazy but gentrified, South of Market area populated by drug dealers and drunks, and full of homeless shelters. It’s all about urban renewal and “sleazy” developments. The San Francisco story!

10. To Play the Fool (1995), by Laurie R. King. An investigation into the murder of a homeless man also brings in religious movements, cults, and domestic partnerships. This is the second installment in King’s series about cop Kate Martinelli. A tour de force.

Honorable Mention: The Distance (2002), by Eddie Muller. Muller, dubbed the Czar of Noir by James Ellroy, really captures post-World War II San Francisco in his first noirish novel. The son of a West Coast boxing writer, Muller used his father as the inspiration for his fictional protagonist, newspaper boxing writer Billy Nichols. Expect lots of color having to do with the local sports scene, journalists, and bars.


michael said...

Having never visited San Francisco I wonder how real is the San Francisco in the Tim Malleny's Cape Weathers mysteries.

Kelli Stanley said...

What a fabulous list, Janet! I can't wait to dig in to the books I haven't already read. :)

And thanks for mentioning CoD, too!

Randal Brandt said...

Thank you for including David Dodge's DEATH AND TAXES in this list. And on his 100th birthday, too!

The novel is now available in a new edition from Bruin Books:

Susan C Shea said...

Nice to see some old favorites and MWA members in the list - Collin Wilcox, Joe Gores, Julie Smith, Bill and Marcia. I never heard of "Death and Taxes" so I have something new to check out. Thanks!