Although, for about the third year in a row the Internal Revenue Service has found a way to postpone the second part of that famous axiom, temporarily. The latest update is that the IRS will not process any tax returns until January 29th 2018. That gives me a little time to catch up on my reading. While perusing through Don Herron’s excellent book ‘The Literary World of San Francisco and its Environs’, I learned about a series of mysteries written by David Dodge from 1941 until 1946 featuring an income tax accountant named Jim “Whit” Whitney. In the first book, ‘Death and Taxes’ written in 1941, Whit and his partner of their accounting firm, George MacLeod, are promised a large bonus if they can gather information concerning an overpayment of taxes four years earlier by a murdered bootlegger, and file an amended return for a refund for overpaid taxes due to the estate. Apparently, people had four years to amend tax returns in 1941, unlike the three years allowed today. After MacLeod is murdered in the 4th Chapter, Whitney becomes a clay pigeon for the murderer himself as he races around San Francisco and other Bay area locations to solve the murder, and also to collect the information he needs to amend the original return for the bonus of $50,000.00 that will now be all his. Whit is a likeable fellow, (well, most tax accountants are loveable characters) but he drinks an enormous amount of booze throughout the book. If I drank as much as Whit does, every one of my clients would be audited! I’ll go through some of the highlights for you without giving away too much information to spoil the ending.
These are two illustrations from the most recent publishing of the book. The top image looks like it may have been from the first edition in 1941. Among the postcards from the back cover is one showing the Bay Bridge. The way the words “where murder, mischief, and menace await you” move across the bridge is prophetic concerning the denouement of the story.
Whitney and MacLeod worked on the eighth floor of the Merchants Exchange Building on the south east corner of California near Montgomery Street. The building is called “The Farmers Exchange Building” in the series. Built in 1904 and a survivor of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, the Merchant Exchange Building is the tall brown building second from the corner on the right in my photo. The grey building in front of it is 300 Montgomery Street. This may have also been where their office was because the book often refers to its location as being at “Montgomery and California Streets”. Both pictures were taken near Kearny looking down California Street.
In the second book in the series, ‘Shear the Black Sheep’ written in 1942, Whitney catches a cable car at Montgomery and California Streets heading up Nob Hill. He narrates one of the most descriptive accounts of a cable car ride I’ve ever read! (after ‘The Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip’) I don’t know if you can pack a hundred people on a cable car, but it’s nice to think so.
“A cable car was creaking up California Street. Whit stepped off the curb, dodged a delivery truck, broad-jumped a pool of water and caught the car as it rattled by at a steady six miles an hour. The Saturday afternoon exodus from the financial district was in full blast, and he had to squeeze to find standing on the step that ran the length of the open car. A hundred people clinging to the straps, railings and protuberances of a vehicle designed to accommodate forty left not much room for the next man, but Whit was an old cable car rider and managed to get a handhold and both feet planted on the step. By keeping all of his muscles tensed he could hold his head far enough inside the car so that the rain dripping from the edge of the roof hit the back of his coat instead of his face. In that familiar position he hung on as the car crawled up the thirty degree slope of Nob Hill, while the wind played merry hell with his coat-tails.”
The vintage picture was taken where Whit caught the cable car around the same period. (OpenSFHistory.org)
Back to ‘Death and Taxes’ and more of the story: In one of their trips back across the Bay Bridge from the East Bay in search of clues, Whit and the police exit at the First Street off ramp, now the Fremont Street off ramp.
“The police car turned down the First Street ramp, and its tires sang as the driver pulled it around the curb. At the bottom of the ramp they turned left, crossed Market and started up Front Street.”
In the vintage picture taken by Dorothea Lange you can see the Russ Building, the Standard Building, the Shell Building and Coit Tower, none which can be seen from the exit today.
Whitney is assigned a bodyguard by the police named Larson. After a dinner in North Beach they drive up Union Street to Russian Hill to visit Marian Wolff one of the main characters and suspects in the book. Heading up Union Street they turn left onto Leavenworth. As they park at Marian’s apartment a passing car fires a shot into their car seriously wounding Whitney. The vintage photo is looking west on Union street where they turned left onto Leavenworth taken in 1910. You can see some of the wooden boards on the building with the bay windows in the upper left in the current photo. (OpenSFHistory.org)
One of the highlights of the novel is a gunfight involving a car full of bad guys and police in the intersection of 22nd and Mission Streets. Lieutenant Webster in a car with Whitney riding along are tailing a car with suspects as it approaches 22nd along Mission from the north. A third car pulls along side of the car the police are following it enters the intersection. Suddenly, the number one suspect, an airplane pilot named Carpenter is spotted standing in front of a drugstore on the corner of 22nd and Mission by Webster.
“Webster held a gun in his lap and waited for a break. When the Buick was halfway across 22nd he saw the aviator standing in front of the drugstore. He said, “Jesus, it’s Carpenter” kicked open the door of the sedan and jumped into the street.” “The Buick was opposite the drugstore and as the gunman in the rear seat leaned forward to shoot at Carpenter, the brown touring car speeded up and hit the Buick’s rear bumper. The bullet shattered the drugstore window two feet beyond Carpenter. The aviator pulled a gun from under his arm, fired twice at the Buick, and ducked back around the corner. He was running diagonally across Twenty-Second Street when Webster took careful aim and shot him in the leg.”
A long descriptive gun battle follows in the 22nd and Mission Street intersection between the cops and bad guys leaving smashed up cars and one of the hoodlums dead. The vintage picture from OpenSFHistory.org shows traffic heading into the intersection at 22nd Street coming north from Mission in the 1940’s. Another OpenSFHistory.org picture at 22nd and Mission Street taken in 1961 shows that there was a drugstore on the corner of the intersection once.
The finale of the book involves a chase between police and the murder (or murderess, I’m not giving anything away) east along the Bay Bridge. That was what I was referring to earlier about the old San Francisco postcard with the words racing across the upper deck of the bridge. They would be heading toward where I’m driving here, but on the left side because the upper deck was two-way traffic in 1941.
The chase moves into the old cantilever span of the Bay Bridge heading toward the toll gates on the east side of the bridge. The vintage photo is of the cantilever bridge nearing completion in 1936, and a photo I took from the new eastern span of the bridge when they were demolishing the old section.
The chase ends at the toll gates on the Oakland side of the bridge. Back then cars paid a toll when they entered the Bay Bridge from Oakland and again when they left the bridge returning to Oakland about where I’m approaching.
“The siren wound up to an ear-splitting shriek. Men moved quickly at the toll-gate and a bar across one of the entrances swung away.” “Whit looked at the narrow passageway between the concrete pillars of the gate and closed his eyes. The siren howled, the car bucked suddenly and they were through. Whit swallowed and opened his eyes again. He looked back to be sure the gate was in one piece”.
I’d better close it off now before I reveal too much, but needless to say Whit ends up celebrating with a lot of highballs and a pretty girl.