The Ghosts in 401

How does Dashiell Hammett fan William Arney know he's living in Hammett's old apartment? Simple: detective work.

Like a lot of people, William Arney moved to San Francisco to reinvent himself. Before arriving here in 1981, he was a long-haired twentysomething from Peoria, Ill. Today, answering the door to his Tenderloin apartment, he's a stout, tough-talking man of 45 in a dark shirt and a vintage tie. He's quick with a laugh and smokes Camels. Any evidence of his Midwestern heritage has since sloughed off. His sentences slide often into hard, ironic wisecracks. So all those years of obsessing over Sam Spade have had an almost osmotic effect, it seems: Two decades after Arney bought his first fedora, the world of yeggs and hopheads and dicks and dames is now a part of his very bloodstream.

Which is fitting: Arney lives at 891 Post St., the same apartment building where Dashiell Hammett lived during the late '20s and wrote the novels that define the American detective story -- Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, and, most famously, The Maltese Falcon. Getting to Arney's fourth-floor apartment requires entering an elevator much like the one we see at the end of John Huston's film version of Falcon -- the one Brigid O'Shaughnessy gets ushered into after Sam Spade refuses to play the sap for her. Yet unlike the modest but well-appointed place Humphrey Bogart's Spade lived in, Arney's home is a small studio with a wall bed, a 7-by-5-foot kitchen, a bathroom with cracking plaster, and windows that open to a noisy nearby fire station. But Arney has good reason to believe that his unit -- Apartment 401 -- is the same one where Hammett pounded greatness out of his Royal typewriter. A few years ago Arney invested in a Royal himself, and he prefers it over e-mail for writing letters. "People tell me, "You should use a computer,'" Arney says, "but I tell them, "Man, the ghosts like the sound of the clack-clack-clack.'"

Apartment Life: William Arney, with talismans of a former tenant.
Anthony Pidgeon
Apartment Life: William Arney, with talismans of a former tenant.
Apartment Life: William Arney, with talismans of a former tenant.
Anthony Pidgeon
Apartment Life: William Arney, with talismans of a former tenant.

To the extent that people still respect the detective novel, Hammett's novels and short stories -- produced in a 12-year burst from 1922 to 1934 -- have proved remarkably durable. TV cop shows call on Spade and the Continental Op as models for their hard-nosed sleuths. Novelists of all stripes study his work as a model of crisp, efficient prose. And countless mystery hacks have tried to mimic Hammett's style, even if it usually results in a noirish goo of tough-talking twits. So there will be a lot of fanfare this month in San Francisco to greet the publication of Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921-1960 -- which officially goes on sale on May Day, as befits the work of a man who spent the tail end of his life as a Communist Party supporter. There will be the usual public celebrations of Hammett's life at John's Grill and the New Main Library, more talk about how yes-Hammett-was-a-detective-himself, and probably a few more pictures of that statue of a black bird.

But with any luck, there will also be mentions of how the Selected Letterspresents a rarely seen Hammett persona: the anxious sweetheart. A full third of the 600-plus-page book is devoted to the mash notes he wrote to his lover, Lillian Hellman -- letters written almost daily during his World War II Army stint in the Aleutian Islands. Even in his early San Francisco days -- when he split his time working at a jeweler's and writing stories for pulps like Black Mask -- he comes across as a tough-but-tender sort. It's particularly resonant in his letters to his wife, Josephine, from whom he was separated -- he confesses his struggles to control his drinking and his frustrations with his writing ("blackmasking," as he called it), even while he sends his love to his daughters by closing with "spank the kids for me."

But a wholly different kind of soft spot creeps into his early letters to book publishers, in which he begins to cultivate the same rough-hewn nonchalance he gave his characters. In 1928, from 891 Post, he wrote to publisher Blanche Knopf shortly after sending her Red Harvest, his first novel: "I'm one of the few -- if there are any more -- people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. I don't mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else's seriously -- but the detective story as a form. Some day somebody's going to make "literature' out of it ... and I'm selfish enough to have my hopes, however slight the evident justification may be." Not that he was always so high-minded. When he finished The Maltese Falcon in 1929, his letter to publisher Harry Block came with a simple plea: "If there is any truth in these rumors that one hears about advances against royalties, will you do the best you can for me?"

Thing is, the letters from 891 Post don't include an apartment number, and neither do his listings in the city directory for 1928, 1929, and 1930. When William Arney says he lives in the exact same apartment Hammett lived in and wrote in -- that Hammett begged for money and respect in -- he's guessing.

But it's an educated guess, drawn mainly from the text of The Maltese Falcon. As dialogue-heavy and spare in description as it is, the book wouldn't seem to provide many clues about Hammett's home. Still, when Arney moved into the place in 1993 ("I was breaking up with a girlfriend, and I needed a place to stay in a real hurry"), the building manager hinted at its heritage, and Arney began poking around. Arney describes the act of reading The Maltese Falcon in the place where it was ostensibly written as "absolutely creepy, sitting in the same room where this stuff is happening." But in time he's deduced this much:

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.