Friday, October 15, 2010

Off The Beaten Track: Hammett, Bogart, and Me

Our contributor this week is Dave Sinclair. He writes detective noir set in 1920s Melbourne, Australia, and has an uncanny knack for trivia about Hollywood movies from the '30s and '40s. He also has his own blog that he sometimes remembers to post on -

As I sat there eating my superb medium rare steak I couldn’t help smiling like a loon. History positively seeped from the mahogany walls. I tried to tell myself this was just any old restaurant. That this was just a room. But it wasn’t. This place had history. This place had cred. I knew that in this small San Francisco bistro Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon. I could be sitting at the very table Bogart lit a cigarette and cracked wise. This was no ordinary place to strap on a feed bag.

John’s Grill on Ellis Street, downtown San Francisco, certainly looks the part. The dimly lit interior with its dark wooden walls hasn't changed since Hammett sat at the bar waiting for his "chops, baked potato and sliced tomato". Well, I’m taking a stab that’s what he ate, as it’s aptly described as Sam Spade's grub of choice in The Maltese Falcon.

Hammett, like John’s Grill, may not have been the first to do what he did, but damn, he was certainly one of the best.

It’s generally agreed that Edgar Allen Poe was the grandfather of detective fiction who wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841 (here). Australia, and Melbourne in particular, played a part in spreading the detective novel’s appeal – in 1898 Francis Hume wrote The Mystery Of The Hansom Cab, wholly set in Melbourne. It was hugely popular in its day, selling 375,000 copies in its first year of release.

But it was Hammett that dragged the genre kicking and screaming out of the mire of pulps and penny dreadfuls. Like Chandler, Hammett created realistic detective and stories. His lean writing style, cynical characters and complex plots brought a new energy to the stagnant detective novel and in the process, created a new beast – Hard Boiled Fiction. His tough heroes confront violence with full knowledge of its corrupting potential. In his novels Hammett painted a mean picture of American society, where greed, brutality, and treachery are the major driving forces behind human actions. His plots rocketed along often taking new, and brutal, turns. He set the bar, and it is debatable if it has ever been reached since.

It is little wonder then that Hammett chose John’s Grill as his hang out of choice. Despite the fact that today the restaurant is replete in crisp white table cloths, excellent service and sumptuous gourmet food, you can still feel that in its darker corners the place has a much seedier history. Character is a word that springs to mind, though without the trappings of a high class eatery, menace is probably more apt.

Ironically, it now houses a real life mystery – about the low down rat bastard that stole the Maltese Falcon statue used in the film, as well as various Hammett first editions (here).

John's Grill is a place of mystery, gourmet food, literary history and jazz on a foggy night. The echoes of the characters created between the walls still resonate – Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man) and Continental Op (The Red Harvest and The Dain Curse). So, if it’s alright with you, I’ll continue to grin like a loon.

The Novel Adventurers will be dedicating a week to books and movies with international settings very soon. Stay tuned!


  1. Absolutely FABULOUS! I love Film Noir but haven't read any detective noir. I really should. I prefer my noir set in LA and San Francisco - I've lived in both cities - and was once one of those people walking the streets of San Francisco, depicted in that photo. The history came alive for me back then and in this post. Thank you for such a treat!

  2. Dave, what a lovely tribute to one of my favorite local haunts! Thanks for that. But you left a real teaser in there: how can you bring up the mystery of the real-life stolen Maltese falcon without telling us what it is?

    Also, can you give us your definition of noir? I heard a great one an Bouchercon yesterday (big mystery conference - in San Francisco this year). I'll share, but you go first!

  3. I'm glad you liked Kathy. I always find the easier something is to write - the more I love the subject.

    Heidi, ahhh, the ever elusive definition of noir. Maybe that's another reason I like it - it's not easily defined.

    Noir's are darker and have more sinister pathological or sociological elements and/or sometimes even political applications to them. They aren't about the surface people want you to see, they're about what lurks in the dark corners of a city - or the human heart.

  4. I love that definition of noir, Dave, you make it sound so... seedy. Great post!

  5. A fun post, Dave, thanks! I can't wait to visit John's Grill next time I'm in SF next. And you've got me curious too -- what's this real-life mystery regarding the stolen statue? You're keeping us in suspense!

  6. OMG, Dave - not only I've been to John's Grill, but I've been there THE DAY THE FALCON got stolen - that is, when it was already missing! I kept looking for it, because it was supposed to be there - at least according to my guide book, but it wasn't. The next day we read in the paper that it was stolen! But, I never found out who, when, why...

  7. Dave, the definition of noir that I heard at Bouchercon came from noir author Eddie Muller, who is this year's toastmaster, and is known around here for his Noir Film Festival, held every year in SF's Castro Theater. He said: Noir is when the protagonist deliberately does bad things to fulfill a particular need and/or he fails to achieve his goal in the end. According to Muller, what sets noir apart from hardboiled detective stories is this: the detective is the good guy, always trying to set things right. But the noir character is the cause of all the trouble in the first place.

    I'm not offering this as the definitive definition because I really have no idea. It's not the genre I write, and it's the one that has always eluded me the most. But I'm curious: what do you think of Eddie's explanation? Is it too narrow?

  8. Wow Lina - how coincidental is that!? Too funny.

    Heidi - interesting definition. Not sure I agree with it though - but I like where he's going with it. To me, I agree that the noir protagonist can do bad things - but usually for good reasons, at least as far as they're concerned. I wouldn't say the noir character is the CAUSE of all the trouble - they can certainly create some trouble along the way - but I think we need to sympathise with their quest, but not necessarily agree with their methods.

    I see noir protagonists as a manifestation of the darker sides of ourselves. Just how far would we go to reach our goals?