Tag Archives: SF reads

SF Reads: The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon

From the 1941 film, which I have not seen yet. But if it’s faithful to the book (as I hear) and involves Bogart? Sign me up!

I’ll be honest: I was reluctant to read this, because I’ve never been much of a mystery reader, but as soon as I started it sucked me in. There’s a reason it’s a classic: it’s the best of its genre, but it’s also GOOD no matter what you normally read. Seriously, if you love San Francisco, read this book.

The wonderful thing about The Maltese Falcon is that, despite the fact that it’s set in 1928, before either the Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge were built, the San Francisco it presents is utterly recognizable. From the murder scene at the Bush and Stockton tunnel onwards, I could picture exactly where the action takes place and how Sam Spade moves through the city block by block, making calls and pounding the pavement to keep tabs on the other main players and locate the titular “black bird”. It feels like San Francisco: cold steamy air, the sound of foghorns, old hotels, American grills, and of course the familiar sound of street names like O’Farrell, Geary, Leavenworth, Post. And it makes use of its setting that goes far beyond the incidental, with scenes centering around a ship from Hong Kong in the port and Effie Perine taking a ferry across the bay to check the theory on the Maltese Falcon with her cousin, a professor at UC Berkeley. Spade says several times throughout the story that this is HIS town, and given how picky we locals are it could easily have come off as fake and pathetic, but it’s such a perfect depiction of San Francisco that we’ve instead returned the favor and embraced The Maltese Falcon as a vital part of SF literary history.

The other great thing about this book is the dialogue and the constant posturing and negotiation between the characters. Sam Spade is cool. He faces tricks, threats, deception and murder without blinking or breaking a sweat. (He’s also a total womanizer, but the sexism is so archaic and ridiculous that you have to laugh at it—during a tense moment in the climactic scene, without a trace of irony, he literally orders femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy into the kitchen to make them all a sandwich. And she does.) The dialogue is snappy, pitch-perfect and full of great one-liners, and apparently it was left almost completely intact for the movie version, which means I’ll be watching it as soon as I get a chance.

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17 San Francisco Reads

Since I’ll regularly be posting about (I hesitate to say “reviewing”) books about San Francisco, I thought I’d kick my blog off with a post about some of the San Francisco books I’ve already read. It’s a surprisingly slim list; I could only come up with 17 books (though I’ve probably forgotten a few) that are partially or completely set in San Francisco or tell a story about it in some way. One of my shortcomings as a blogger is an annoying tendency to thoroughness (i.e. if I’ve read 17 books about San Francisco, I MUST blog about all of them, whether they were good, bad, or anywhere in between), so to combat this (and the fact that it’s been many years since I read some of them), I’ve only written a few summaries, and listed the rest without descriptions. They range from literary game-changers to Oprah’s Book Club picks to YA novels to total guilty pleasures; some deal with San Francisco very briefly, others are an open love letter to it, but they all have something valuable to say about the city.

 Slouching Towards BethlehemSlouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1968)

Most of the essays in this collection of writing on California in the sixties deal with other parts of the state (southern California, the Central Valley, or the Monterey Bay area), but the title essay, about drug use in the Haight-Ashbury counterculture, is an unflinching, de-romanticized look at a part of San Francisco history that has by now passed into legend. Unlike ecstatic writings by people inside the Beat or hippie movements or nostalgia-laden contemporary accounts, Didion writes from the outside looking in, and as such is able to capture the weakness and decay of the counterculture.

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