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 - http://www.idiotsview.blogspot.com/
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!