‘Puzzle for Puppets’

PuzzleopenuseAnd also a puzzle for me, at times, trying to follow the footsteps of the characters in this 1944 murder mystery that takes place in San Francisco during World War Two. Patrick Quentin, the author of the book, was actually two writers, Richard Wilson Webb, and Hugh Callingham Wheeler. The locations are well identified and easy to find, although the writers took a “literary license” in describing the lay of the land and the names of some of the San Francisco structures. Two of the locations, however, are described very accurately, if somewhat exaggerated, the Stockton Tunnel and the southwest area near San Francisco Zoo.

PuzzleMarketWW2useThe mystery opens up on Market Street during the war. The main protagonists in the book, navy officer Peter Duluth and his wife Iris, are looking for a place to stay in crowded wartime San Francisco. The above photo, taken during the war about where the book opens on Market Street near 4th and Stockton Streets, fits the opening paragraph well. As I have in the past with their permission, I’ve used vintage pictures from the fantastic website of http://opensfhistory.org/ of the locations I’m posting about, some of them around the period that the novel was written.

“Sailors, thousands of them, crawled up and down Market Street like a plague of blue locusts. Doubtless they brought color and racy vigor and all the other things sailors are supposed to bring to a scene, but I hadn’t come to San Francisco to see sailors.” / “The sailors, jostling against Iris and me as we beat our way forward, were just another of the things like overcrowded hotels and non-existent taxis that were conspiring against our week-end.”

PuzzleStocktonMarketuse“We had reached the mouth of Stockton Street. I took her arm and guided her out of Market Streets Sailors into an almost equally dense mass of harassed shoppers.” / “As we started to climb Stockton, I sneezed. I had felt a cold coming on in the train.”

Here is where they turned into Stockton Street in a picture taken in 1947 and now. Although it does incline a little bit, it isn’t much of a hill to “climb”.

PuzzleStocktonuse“Half way up the block we passed a sign proclaiming a Turkish bath. With wild hopefulness, my wife said: “You don’t supposed Turkish baths rent rooms to mixed couples – I mean, if you explain you’re married?”

The top picture was taken in 1945, just around the time Peter and Iris passed by here. This is the first block of Stockton Street off of Market. The construction work is due to the Muni Metro extension to Chinatown being completed. Peter mentions the Stockton hill (!) again when he goes back to the Turkish bath later in the book to try to sweat out his cold, probably a good way to get pneumonia! As he leaves the hotel at Union Square that they eventually find, he tells the reader,

“I strode down the hill to the Turkish bath.”

On his way to the bathhouse where he will eventually have his navy uniform stolen to incriminate him in an upcoming murder, he gives a colorful description of San Francisco.

“There’s an elusive something about San Francisco that no other city has. Maybe it’s the flower stalls blossoming on every street corner. Maybe it’s the crazy gradients that make roller-coasters out of the streetcars. Or maybe it’s just the air. But people in San Francisco doing the most humdrum things look like people at the peak of some enthralling adventure.”

PuzzleStFrancisusePuzzlePlazause“The St. Francis Hotel and the St. Anton Hotel stared at each other across the formal flower beds of the park like two rival and opulently upholstered dowagers at a garden party. We tried the St. Francis first. It would have none of Iris’s charm or my blunt instrument. Traipsing across the little park, we pushed through the swing doors and stepped into the haughty vestibule of the St. Anton.”

The only hotel that could have possibly been the St. Anton Hotel would have been the old Hotel Plaza built around 1915 that stood on the northwest corner of Post and Stockton streets. The hotel was still there during World War Two but I don’t know if it had been renamed the St. Anton Hotel; I can’t find any hotel under that name researching San Francisco history. I’ll have to do some more checking. The above two comparisons are of the St. Francis Hotel looking across Union Square to where the Hotel Plaza was, and the Hotel Plaza looking back (sort of) at the St. Francis. Demolished now, the Plaza Hotel was behind the trees in the background on the north side of Union Square.

PuzzleSTunneluse Shortly after checking in to the St. Anton, Iris and Peter receive a mysterious warning that Iris’s cousin, Eulalia Crawford who lives on California Street on Nob Hill, may be in danger. They leave the hotel to take a cable car to warn her and walk through the Stockton Tunnel. I’ve crossed through this tunnel heading in the direction they headed many times and I find the description entering and exiting the tunnel, (leaving out some of the slightly racists comments acceptable at the time) accurate; east does meet west if you’re heading in their direction, which was actually south to north.

“Since it was impossible to get a taxi, Iris and I decided to walk up Stockton and take the cable car over on California.” / “We passed through a long dark tunnel and as we emerged at the other end, we were in another city where unreadable hieroglyphics took the place of names on the stores and the faces around us had lost their Anglo-Saxon features”

The vintage photo is the south entrance to the Stockton Tunnel in 1950, six years after Iris and Peter crossed through here.

PuzzletunneltopuseIris and Peter came out of the Stockton Tunnel into Chinatown here at this end, seen here in the vintage photo from above the tunnel, circa 1950. Peter noticed too that It doesn’t quite look as exotic as the impression that Iris gets, but you do get a feeling of leaving one country behind for another when you walk through the tunnel in this direction.

“Iris, watching the Chinese men and women moving past, made a little crooning sound. Already, I could tell, she was in a world more exotic than this real Chinatown.”

PuzzleCCaruseIn the next paragraph, they’re catching a cable car at Stockton and California Streets heading up Nob Hill to Eulalia’s apartment. They would have to have climbed up the steps at the north end of the Stockton Tunnel and doubled back a block to do that. Here the writers get really confusing! Iris and Peter catch a downhill heading cable car to go up Nob Hill, and the cable car goes up and down hills as it climbs Nob Hill!

“We waited on the precipitous corner of California Street. Soon a cable car bucketed down the hill and ground to a last-minute, breathless stop. We boarded it. Iris chose places in the open section under the shadow of the giant brake lever. We sat there on the absurd benches which faced out towards the sidewalk. That cross-town ride, lurching up hills and zooming down hills added a final touch of insanity to our mission. Iris, clinging to an iron pole like a pole on a merry-go-round, kept her own counsel. Once, as we wheezed up to the great bulk of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, she murmured, “The white rose and the red rose mean blood.”

That sounds like a prophecy to me! When they get to Eulalia’s, they find her brutally murdered with clues pointing to Peter as the killer. They decide not to notify the police, and try to find the killer themselves. How original! They take a cable car back to where they originally caught it. Another reason that I think Iris and Peter were staying where the old Hotel Plaza was Peter’s narration here.

“At last the cable car dumped as at Stockton. We could have waited for another car to take us the four blocks to the hotel, but we decided to walk.”

Four blocks south, California to Pine, Pine to Bush, Bush to Sutter, Sutter to Post would have put them exactly where the Hotel Plaza used to be. Also, if they would have waited for another cable car to take them those four blocks they would have waited until World War Three because no cable car line could have traveled that way. The vintage photo above is California Street at Stockton looking east in 1948.

PuzzleSloatuseA tip as to where he may find a clue concerning the murderer’s identity leads Peter on a late night visit to the San Francisco Zoo area and Wawona Street. Peter accepts a ride from an acquaintance that he doesn’t trust in preference of taking a streetcar. However, playing it safe, he has the man drop him off at Sunset Blvd. and Sloat and walks a number of blocks in the dark past the zoo. Peter gives an eerie description of walking through this area at night back then.

“I was scared of the trolley. After midnight trolleys are infrequent. They are always maddeningly slow, and Wawona Avenue (Peter refers to the steet as Wawona Avenue instead of Street in the book) huddled close to the Pacific on the fringes of the Fleishhacker Zoo, was maddeningly remote.” / “I headed down Sloat towards the sea. I had never been in this district by night. It was desolate beyond word. A few houses straggled on my right. On my left, the bleak edge of the Lake Merced Park stretched away into the darkness. As I hurried on the street curved into the park itself and there was nothing but the darkness and the gaunt skeletons of trees. From the Great Zoo ahead of me, the lonely yowling of wild beasts rose every now and then, intensifying the silence. I quickened my pace until I was out of the park again and turned right into Wawona Avenue itself.”

The David Rumsey Map Collection aerial photograph composition of San Francisco in 1938 shows that there were, indeed, very few houses along Sloat Blvd. from Sunset Blvd to the ocean around this time. The vintage photograph above, circa 1940, shows Sloat Blvd dropping down from Sunset Blvd. and approaching the Pacific Ocean past the zoo on the right. This was the route Peter made his lonely walk before turning toward Wawona Street, probably at 45th Avenue.

PuzzleWawona1usePuzzleWawona2usePeter goes to house on the corner of Wawona and 45th Avenue where a second murder occurs. This murder is even more horrible for Peter because he sees another woman being murdered as it unfolds and he tries desperately to prevent it. Peter narrates that the house was on the corner of Wowana Avenue but doesn’t identify the cross street. The Rumsey photograph map shows that Wawona Avenue only cut three blocks from the Great Highway past 47th to 45th Avenue around this time. After witnessing the murder, Peter states that he walked several blocks toward the ocean to the trolley terminal for the Zoo which was at, and still is, 47th and Wawona, that’s why I’m putting the murder at 45th and Wawona.

“I walked the few desolate blocks to the zoo terminal of the trolley line.” / “An empty car was waiting at the end of the tracks, less than a hundred yards from the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean. I was the sole passenger at first, and by the time the car bolted forward I had only two sleepy sailors as traveling companions. At least my exit from Wawona Avenue had been inconspicuous.”

The top two then and nows are at the 47th and Wawona streetcar terminal. The black and white photo from 1949 shows that it was the L line, as it still is today, that ran all the way out here. The color picture from 1970 of an L Line streetcar turning onto Wawona Avenue from 47th shows that the terminal wasn’t quite “less than a hundred yards from the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean” which is behind where the hill in the background is.

PuzzleCAuditoriumuseThe denouement of the book takes place at a circus being held at a building called the Lawrence Stadium. The only building that this could possibly have been is the Civic Auditorium, now the Billy Graham Civic Auditorium, in the Civic Center. Iris and Peter have learned from clues and tips that the murderer might have something to do with the circus being performed there.

“The Lawrence Stadium was somewhere along Market Street. Iris and I walked down Fillmore.” / “We Reached Market. It was too early for the tidal wave of sailors, but the street was crowded enough.” / “Iris said: “We’d better take a trolley. Oh, there’s one now.” / “The Lawrence Stadium reared up on the other side of the street. It was one of those big random buildings that get put up in cities and then have to be used for something”

Well, that could describe the Civic Auditorium. Circuses were held inside the auditorium, and I learned from SFGate that on one occasion in 1972 two lions got out of their cages and roamed around the auditorium for around three hours before being captured!  The top photo is a 1919 parade by the Hospital Corps passing the Civic Auditorium along Polk Street. The current picture is of preparations being put in place along Polk Street for the 2018 Pride Parade. Well, I’ll leave the rest of the story to anyone interested in reading the book. If you enjoy mysteries set in San Francisco or just mysteries at all, it’s not a bad read. Peter and Iris Duluth are not unlike Nick and Nora Charles only a little naughtier, and it was fun following them around San Francisco.

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