Friday, October 07, 2011

Five best San Francisco novels

During the 70s and 80s, Armistead Maupin introduced the world to the diverse inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane in his pioneering serial, Tales of the City. The serial went on to spawn a successful succession of books and television miniseries.

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, he named five "books which best capture [San Francisco]’s sense of possibility and noirish feel," including:
The Maltese Falcon
by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is another thrilling story. Tell us about this classic work of detective fiction, published in 1930, and what we can learn about the emerging urban culture of the time by reading it.

The Modern Library named The Maltese Falcon one of the top 100 novels of the century. It was the first, and probably the greatest, hard-boiled detective novel. It pretty much invented the genre and its archetypes, including the femme fatale and the hard-drinking detective – in this case Sam Spade. Hammett created a prototype that’s been followed ever since.

Hammett never tells you what the characters are thinking. He describes what they’re saying and what they’re doing, but he never tells you what’s on anyone’s mind. So you’re somewhat in the fog yourself as you read it. I love it because it gives you a sense of what the city was like in 1930. You can see the fog-blurred neon. You really feel that you are back in that time and place. San Francisco is very much a noir city.

There are three film adaptations of The Maltese Falcon. You have noted, “If the movies are our modern mythology, San Francisco can lay claim to a sizeable chunk of Olympus.” What makes the city so cinematic?

It’s a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of colours and vistas. Because of the fog, it never appears quite the same way twice. In Vertigo, Hitchcock used a fog filter, because fog is the most unpredictable of props. It’s one of those great cities of the world that is identifiable by any of its streets.
Read about another book on the list.

The Maltese Falcon appears on John Mullan's lists of ten of the best fat men in literature and ten of the best femmes fatales in literature, and among Janet Rudolph's ten favorite San Francisco-backdropped crime novels.

Learn about Armistead Maupin's favorite poem and his hero from outside literature.

--Marshal Zeringue