Here’s the thing — I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there, and every so often I take one. I do my best to keep my know-it-all mouth shut and learn a thing or two, pick up a few ideas for the podcast, and take some notes for you. And though ratings systems can be problematic, they do provide a useful shorthand, and I promise to ruthlessly avoid “grade inflation”. That said, your mileage may vary.

subject: Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco — Nob Hill & Tenderloin
time: 4 hours (!)
cost: adult $10 (see website for current costs)
tack rating:

An enormous amount of ink and pixels has been spilled over this tour, and deservedly so. Don Herron has been showing up with a brimmed hat and trenchcoat for over a quarter century now, leading groups of tourists and locals alike through the gutters and over the hills of Dash Hammett’s 1920’s San Francisco. Famous? The man’s even been the subject of a Jeopardy question! (Answer: “The city in which Don Herron leads a Dashiell Hammett tour”).

We met on the sidewalk in front of the Main Library, and as the group assembled, Don’s introductory lecture began. It lasted half an hour, and that was just the beginning. This tour is not something to be entered into lightly — it’s a marathon.

Herron’s mastery of the subject is encyclopedic, and he is absolutely committed to giving you your $10 worth — as we hiked, the biographical information and trivia came so thick and fast that my notebook pages began to scorch and wilt under the assault.

a walking encyclopedia

He walked us from the ‘Loin over Nob Hill, from urine-soaked alleys to lofty thoroughfares, regaling us with rapid-fire facts, figures and anecdotes as he energetically acted out shoot-outs, recalled film noir trivia and herded stray guests back onto sidewalks.

Here are a few of the high points:

  • Hammett’s early days as a Pinkerton agent
  • A legion of actual locations described in his work
  • Detailed descriptions of his considerable domestic difficulties
  • A visit to Hammett’s 1920’s apartment at #891 Post Street
  • Discussion of Hammett’s disastrous financial and left-leaning political life
  • George Raft was to have played Sam Spade!
  • We even learn the real-life origins of Maltese Falcon characters

This last point is pretty cool — we learn, for example, that the Falcon gunsel Wilmer Cook’s name comes from a suspect in the theft of an entire Ferris wheel (a case Hammett was unable to solve) and that Joel Cairo was a man he’d picked up at random (a “fair pickup”) in Stockton when he couldn’t get his man.

As I mentioned, one of the selling points of this tour is that you get to visit Hammett’s famous San Francisco apartment — the one in which he composed “The Maltese Falcon”, and whose geography is replicated in the novel itself. But was the cramped room we visited, packed though it was with memorabilia and appropriately featuring a Murphy bed, truly Hammett’s? There’s some intriguing yet circumstantial evidence, all well presented, and though the story of its discovery might be a bit (em>too pat, it does seem to add up. Guess you’ll have decide for yourself.

I didn’t keep a precise count, of course, but it wasn’t long before I realized that at least a quarter of the stories being told were not about Dashiell Hammett at all, but about the tour itself — a tour of the tour, a sort of meta-tour. Charming at first, but after three+ hours I confess that I began to long for a more streamlined approach. By the time we got to the notorious Burritt Alley, site of the murder of Sam Spade’s partner, it was time for me and my lady friend to call it a day and make a break for it. The rest of the crew headed down to John’s Grill for a glimpse of the Falcon itself, but we caught a train and headed out of the past…

should you go?

There are the makings of an excellent two hour tour here, but at four hours the mind begins to cloud. I deeply appreciate Herron’s commitment to the fascinating subject, and quite enjoyed most of it, but please — consider some judicious editing!

If you’re a fan of Hammett, or of the pulp noir era in general, or even just of San Francisco in the 20s then… I must say yes. Just make sure you’re well hydrated and armed with a pair of sturdy shoes.

For further edification
» A walk in Sam Spade’s Gumshoes — LA Times