Spade Work

Putting the lessons of Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco life and art to practical use

"I watched that old guy buy a lady's fur coat for a Christmas present," says Peabody. "Then he went down to the Gold Rushand drank like 20 scotch and sodas."

"I never left John's," says a woman calling herself "Nora Charles" from Hammett's popular Thin Man series. "My "suspect' never left either. I just watched him drinking while I sat there drinking. It was a fine piece of detective work. Nick and Nora would have been proud.

"Why are we sitting in this place anyway?" asks Mrs. Charles. "It's a little rich, even for my blood."

According to The Dashiell Hammett Tour, a guidebook written by local author Don Herron, the luxurious St. Francis lobby is most likely the one through which Miles Archer shadowed Brigid O'Shaughnessybefore she did him in on Burritt Street. A bronze plaque hangs in the Burritt alleyway, denoting the fictitious murder by the double-talking dame. It's the 17th stop on Herron's tour, which, at 25 years old, is easily the longest-running literary walking tour in the country.

On any given Sunday at noon, Herron waits for Hammett fans and Sam Spade groupies at the northwest corner of the Main Library. Now, looking more like the portly, balding Operational Op than the wiry mug with the thin mustache pictured in his youth, Herron is, nonetheless, a formidable character who is most comfortable in a broken-down fedora, loose tie, and open trench coat. He waves but he does not smile.

"I thought about calling it quits after 25 years," says Herron, "but my divorce settlement requires that I stay in the area until my son turns 18. So I'll keep it going until the tour hits 30. Besides, Miles Archer gave his life for tourism."

Over the years, Herron has guided hundreds, if not thousands, of people through the back alleys of San Francisco, following the seedy trails left by both Dashiell Hammett and his fictional characters. Herron helped found the Maltese Falcon Society and became acquainted with Jo Hammett, the daughter of the bindlestiff author; when Lawrence Ferlinghetti was choosing a lane to rename Dashiell Hammett, he took Herron's advice and chose Monroe Street over Burritt so as not to encourage a Disney-like atmosphere at the "murder" site. When the original Maltese Falcon (movie prop) went on the auction block, Herron pitched in some cash so that John's Grill might try to bring the bird "home." Of course, some mysterious man in a trench coat outbid everyone, and the famed trophy once again went into hiding, a fact that Herron relates with a practiced grimace.

"In the end, the prop was worth as much as the bird in the story," Herron says, leading us to 580 McAllister, an apartment building where the Continental Op corners the jewel thief, Ines Almad, in "The Whosis Kid," a short story from 1925 that foreshadowed The Maltese Falcon and drew on Hammett's real-life detective work for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

"He answered an ad that read, "Orphans preferred,'" says Herron, who glibly explains that Hammett was a self-made man with a ninth-grade education who borrowed books from the library and took work where he could. "During World War I, though, he caught TB. He met a woman in a hospital in Spokane. He seemed to recover and went back to work for Pinkerton. He and the nurse were married."

"But Hammett was a lunger," Herron continues, leading us to 620 Eddy, the one-time home of the newlyweds. "He had to keep a separate apartment so that he didn't infect his wife and daughter." More than likely, though, 891 Post suited Hammett's solitary temperament and Spade's eventual emergence. In the apartment, now residence of a Spade-obsessed fan named Bill the Hat, one can imagine Spade pushing Brigid O'Shaughnessy past the Murphy bed, into the bathroom to strip down and satisfy his suspicions that she hasn't pocketed his cash.

"The Continental Op ate dinner here in The Dain Curse," says Herron, conjuring his favorite character and pointing to the fading letters painted across a large red-brick building on Olive Street. From the O'Farrell side of the building, Blanco'scan be recognized as the flashy Great American Music Hall, but, from here, it's a perfect noir setting for a shootout, complete with fire escapes, dark doorways, and steam.

"It's a wonder they still haven't painted over it," says Herron. "When I started this tour, the B in Blanco's still looked like a B; now, it looks like an H, but I'm glad it's still here."

"Sam Spade was the kind of detective people liked to imagine themselves as, but the Continental Op was like a real detective. He was shifty and unattractive and emotionally battered. When he was crushed, he didn't whine, he just got up again and filed it away."

For info on the Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, call (510) 287-9540.

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