Crime (mystery that is) flourishes in Bay Area

Randal Brandt, co-curator of "Bullets across the Bay," stands by poster of Dashiell Hammett

The San Francisco Bay area, with its picturesque hills and atmospheric fog, has long been a favorite locale for mystery writers.

From the first known Bay Area mystery, The Mysteries and Miseries of San Francisco, published anonymously in 1853, to Dashiell Hammett’s genre-busting 1930 The Maltese Falcon, to Susan Dunlop’s series on Berkeley police officer Jill Smith, the Bay Area has offered fertile ground for stories of murder and mayhem.

There have been at least 1,800 mysteries and detective novels set in the greater nine-county Bay Area region, according to Randal Brandt, the editor of the online bibliography, Golden Gate Mysteries, and co-curator of a new show at UC Berkeley’s Doe Library, “Bullets across the Bay: The San Francisco Bay Area in Crime Fiction.” Writers have not only taken advantage of the weather and signature landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Campanile in their books, but of historical events like the 1906 earthquake and fire, the region’s various World Fairs, and notorious murder cases, like the Zodiac killer, he said.

To celebrate the San Francisco and the East Bay’s role in numerous mysteries, UC Berkeley will dedicate its Oct. 14 Story Hour series to mystery writers. A panel of authors, including Lucha Corpi, Eddie Muller, and Kelli Stanley, will talk about the region’s influence on the genre. Janet Randolph will moderate the discussion, which will take place from 4 to 6 pm at 190 Doe, right across from the Morrison Reading Room in the Doe Library. There will be a gallery talk with the curators at 3 pm.

For Brandt, the principal cataloger for the Bancroft Library, the panel and exhibit are the culmination of a decades-long fascination with Bay Area mysteries. Brandt first became interested in Bay Area mysteries when he discovered David Dodge, a Berkeley-born mystery and travel writer who lived from 1910 to 1974. After building a website dedicated to Dodge’s work, Brandt started cataloging Bay Area mysteries in 2002. In the beginning, working from a bibliography compiled by Don Herron, who has been leading a popular Dashiell Hammett walking tour in San Francisco since 1977, Brandt came up with 900 titles that fit the definition. After spending a decade scouring used bookstores, garage sales, catalogs, online databases, and personal libraries, that number has risen to 1,800.

The UC Berkeley libraries have a rich collection of mystery and detective novels, from a first-edition of The Maltese Falcon in the Bancroft Library (without its original dust cover, alas) to dime store novels and a collection of children’s mysteries in the Education-Psychology Library. Many of the books actually came from Brandt and his wife, Maria: they are the donors of more than 500 books to the library.

“Bullets across the Bay,” which was also co-curated by UC librarian Michaelyn Burnette and Maria C. Brandt, tries to show the depth of the libraries’ collections and highlight different themes.

There is a bookcase that focuses on early mysteries, one on children’s mysteries, one that features historic events, one on “crossovers,” which are mysteries combined with other genres like chick lit or literary writing, one on “counterculture,” mixing mystery with ethnic or gay characters, and one on “tourism,” where writers who usually set their mysteries elsewhere set one book in the Bay Area. The law library, surprisingly, has a large collection of legal mysteries, and one case focuses on these, including a book signed by best-selling author Sheldon Siegel, a 1983 Boalt graduate.

While books set in San Francisco are prominently featured, the exhibit highlights books set in the East Bay as well. There are numerous books set at Cal, including Julie Smith’s Huckleberry Fiend, which takes place in the Mark Twain papers at the Bancroft Library. (For a complete list of mysteries set at Cal and Berkeley, click here.)

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a huge case devoted to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and its influence on other books and in film. Many experts date the rise of modern crime fiction to the book’s 1930 release. As Eddie Muller, who will be on Friday’s panel, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008: “Modern crime fiction was born in a small apartment at 891 Post Street in San Francisco.”

The Maltese Falcon was made into a radio series and adopted for the screen three times, most famously starring Humphrey Bogart. Its style and its main character, the detective Sam Spade, have been endlessly copied. The exhibit not only shows early versions of the book, but books featuring Hammett as a character (he was a Pinkerton detective before he found success as a writer), and Spade as a character. Considering the book’s outsized influence, everyone wonders why Hammett only wrote one book and a handful of stories featuring Spade.

“The character was popular immediately,” said Brandt. “Why he never went back and wrote another novel or short stories, no one really knows.”

The curators injected a bit of humor in the exhibit, by utilizing one of the many marble pillars that stand in the gallery space. They have perched something meant to resemble the Maltese Falcon wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, one of the ways it is described in the novel. The plaque identifying the package is called “Dingus” a reference to how Spade describes the bird in the book.

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