I knew when I started writing the Zodiac Mysteries . . . well, let me backtrack . . . I knew even before I started working on this series that I wanted it to be set in San Francisco, a city of bright windy days, dank and foggy nights haunted by the baritone voices of the foghorns. Lots of people think of Los Angeles when they think of noir, but in my opinion, San Francisco is the capital of noir. And the idea of an astrologer as my amateur sleuth seemed very fitting.
I’ve always known that lots of mysteries have been set in the city, and I thought it would be fun to write a post about fictional San Francisco detectives, but the more I researched and surfed the web, the more overwhelmed I became. The list is unbelievably long. The upside of that is that I must be in good company if lots of other authors had the very same idea.
I realized I had bitten off much more than I could chew. Then I thought perhaps I should break it down? Maybe by noir or police procedurals or amateur sleuths or . . . what? Or maybe by time period or books and films or even TV episodics based on books. And I was working on a list that didn’t even include “the Bay Area” or Northern California. I was focused strictly on San Francisco but the more facts I unearthed, the longer the task seemed.
If I only included amateur sleuths, my list wouldn’t be quite that long, but then I’d have to leave out some of my favorite authors and favorite films. Films like The House Across the Bay where George Raft watches and bides his time through the bars of his prison on Alcatraz.
Or The Golden Gate Murders with David Janssen as a cop and Susannah York as a nun who team up to catch a silent murderer. Those scenes have stayed in my mind for years and I don’t think I’ve ever driven across the Golden Gate Bridge and not remembered the orange-caped (to match the color of the Bridge) murderer. Perhaps he’s still lurking in the towers of the Bridge. Lots of foggy atmosphere too!
But my all time favorite fictional San Francisco detective is Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. I loved it in book form and in film (the 1941 version) with Humphrey Bogart of course.
I can just imagine the author at 891 Post Street writing his novel and even using his own apartment as the setting for Sam Spade’s digs. But the story of the Dingus wasn’t the first crime novel set in the Bay Area. Not by a long shot. There had been scores of other books. The earliest I’ve read of is The Mysteries and Miseries of San Francisco (1853) by an anonymous author. It has the distinction of being the earliest known crime novel with a Bay Area setting.
As for film and television, how could I not mention The Streets of San Francisco? Starring Karl Malden as Detective Mike Stone with Michael Douglas (1972-1977). Or the Dirty Harry films (1971-1988) — Inspector Harold Francis “Dirty Harry” Callahan, an icon of an antihero who crosses all sorts of ethical boundaries to pursue justice. Or even Nash Bridges with Don Johnson and Cheech Marin as inspectors with the SFPD. Or how about Monk? Adrian Monk, a truly unique detective with OCD and multiple phobias?
The list goes on and on – there’s Juliet Blackwell’s witchcraft mysteries with Lily Ivory, and Robin Burcell’s inspector Kate Gillespie and Kate Carlisle’s Brooklyn Wainwright, a rare book expert. There’s Dianne Day’s Fremont Jones series set at the turn of the century and Meg Gardiner’s Jo Beckett and then Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini, Joe Gores, James Patterson, Laurie R. King’s Kate Martinelli and John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy. The more I searched, the more I found. This couldn’t possibly be covered in a blog post, there’s enough material for ten volumes at least.
But along the way, I stumbled upon some fabulous mystery sites.
Here’s Don Herron’s website. He’s a collector of San Francisco mysteries. Or this one – A Woman’s Place is on the Case featuring female sleuths of all sorts.
And then I discovered Golden Gate Mysteries! And guess what? My San Francisco sleuth is there! Check out this listing!
I breathed a contented sigh of relief. Julia Bonatti isn’t alone. She’s in some great company and proud to join the ranks of fictional San Francisco sleuths. And so am I, thrilled to be able to contribute to a great genre. I hope every reader will enjoy Julia’s world as much as I enjoy writing about it.
This post first appeared at Jane Reads on August 3, 2017.