More mysteries and histories

For the past five or six weeks I’ve been reading old mysteries that I could order on the internet that were set in San Francisco. All of them have some wonderfully descriptive location passages in their stories, and I got a kick out of visiting the places the authors wrote about in their fictional stories so long ago and taking comparison pictures. It’s not a singular thing to do; (Sherlock Holmes used that word singular a lot, but I don’t think he ever made it to San Francisco) Don Herron has been taking people to Dashiell Hammett sites with his fine tours around San Francisco for years. Shadow me now while we prowl around San Francisco as the murderers, victims, heroes and heroines did many years ago. I’d like to point out that it would not have been possible to have had the fun that I had doing this post without the website where these vintage pictures are from. If you love exploring old San Francisco as I do, check out their site.

MysteryMonsteruseIn ‘Many a Monster’ written in 1948 by Robert Finnegan, Dan Banion is a newspaper reporter trying to prove the innocence of a fugitive from the police, hiding in San Francisco and wanted for the gruesome serial killings of four women.

MysteryMonster3rduseRead Banion’s dreary description of 3rd Street as he turns onto it from Market Street looking for clues.

{Third Street – commonly called Skid Row or Skid Road – was the street of down-and-outers, lined by pawnshops, junk stores, cheap saloons, and gaunt-looking hotels. Here and there a ragged drunk slept in a doorway with an empty bottle clutched to his breast. Prostitutes, fat and dowdy, thin and tuberculous, (I’m not sure that’s a word) wandered in and out of barrooms on crooked heels}

The vintage picture is 3rd Street between Mission and Howard Streets looking toward Market Street in 1952.

MysteryMonsterPeerlessuse{Farther up the street, Dan could see the neon sign of the Regent Theater projecting over the sidewalk.}

The ‘Regent Theater’ Dan’s searching for was probably the old Peerless Theater on 3rd near where Minna Alley comes into it, seen here in 1962. Part of Yerba Buena Gardens and the Center for the Arts now occupies the spot where the theater was. The ‘Ding Dong Dollies’; Gee, that must have been a good show!

MysteeryWifeuseIn ‘My Dead Wife’ (Is that a grabber title or what?) written in 1948 by William Worley, Frank Terrance who lives on the Telegraph Hill part of Kearny Street, (Curiously, the author spells it Kearney Street) is a depressed and lonely man in love with his unfaithful wife who has left him. His wife, Jessie, shows up at his apartment in the first chapter broke and obviously in some type of trouble. Torn between his feeling for her and aware that she doesn’t love him, he begins drawing back to her in spite of himself. Hey, we’ve all been there. The reunion doesn’t last long because while he’s in the kitchen mixing Jessie a drink she’s shot to death while sitting in his arm chair. Well, at least Frank had the sense enough to slam down the drink he made for Jessie when he saw her bleeding in the chair. After kneeling on the floor by her to make sure she’s dead, Frank panics fearing he may be blamed and quickly leaves his apartment.

MysteryWifeMandarinuse{I walked down to Columbus and turned into Grant Avenue. I walked at a steady, easy pace through Chinatown towards Market Street. I went past the wailing and whining of the Chinese theater, past the night clubs and their displays of Chinese fan dancers, past the bars and chop suey parlors, the joss houses, the entrances where tourists never go, past the glittering Chinese art stores and the stench of poultry and fish markets.}

That’s about the best description of a walk along Grant Avenue that I’ve ever read! The theater Frank passed on Grant Avenue was the old Mandarin Theater, now closed and empty. Orson Welles met up with Rita Hayworth in this theater after breaking out of the Hall of Justice, where she double-crosses him, in the 1947 film ‘The Lady from Shanghai’. The vintage picture is from 1934.

MysteryWifeGrantuseTerrance stops at his walk along Grant Avenue here at Grant and Geary Blvd. and goes into a cocktail lounge and begins to drink heavily until he notices the other customers staring at him with curious looks. He discovers that he has blood on his face and clothes from his murdered wife. The vintage picture is from 1957.

{I pulled up short. I was a block from Market Street, and I was staring into the window of a cocktail lounge. I looked at the tall, sardonic figure of a black crow advertising a brand of whiskey. From within came the hot and ribald beat of a jazz orchestra. One of those bars which befuddle customers with noise as well as liquor.}

MysterySleeveuse‘Murder Up My Sleeve’ was written in 1937 by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, although Perry Mason isn’t in this book. I liked this one the best; however, some readers might find it lacking in action. Much of the dialogue between the characters is surprisingly contemporary, and I developed a crush on Cynthia Renton right from the first page she appears in. Our hero is Terry Clane who is often referred in the book as an “adventurer”. Clane is summoned to the District Attorney’s office in the opening of the book because a blackmailer named Jacob Mandra has been murdered with a “sleeve gun”. A sleeve gun is a weapon that can be hidden in the sleeve and fires a deadly dart that can be launched by pressing your arm against a solid object, such as a desk. Terry Clane owns such a weapon.

MysterySleeve1Powelluse The District Attorney tries to intimidate Clane by reading to him from a dossier his office has collected on our “adventurer”, including this information.

{Keeps a balance of something less than a thousand dollars in the main branch of the Bank of America at Number One Powell Street, but seems to be free from financial worries. Has a host of Chinese friends in the local district. At night sometimes goes to Chinatown, enters stores, disappears through back doors, and upon such occasions fails to return to his apartment until shortly before dawn.}

Sounds pretty normal to me. The Bank of America at Number One Powell Street is seen here in 1925 when it was the Bank of Italy. Founded by Amadeo Peter Giannini, the Bank of Italy became the Bank of America in the 1920’s and was the largest bank in the world for over 50 years. Giannini made the bank the enormous giant it became in the financial world by the simple but profitable idea that people would have to borrow money to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, while many other banks were hesitant to lend to people whose fortunes were wiped out by the disaster. Today, Number One Powell is an AT&T store.

MysterySleeveSTunneluse Clane travels through the Stockton Tunnel to Chinatown to visit Chu Kee who lives on Stockton Street. Chu Kee’s daughter, Sou Ha, knew Jacob Mandra and was one of the last people to see him alive. Clanes’s encounter with Chu Kee and Sou Ha has an atmosphere of danger that reminded me of when Bette Davis goes to meet mysterious Gale Sondergaard to purchase a letter that will incriminate her in the murder of her lover in the 1940 film ‘The Letter’. Clane describes coming out of the north end of the Stockton Tunnel and entering Chinatown.

{Where San Francisco’s Stockton Street emerges from the north side of the tunnel, it becomes as much a part of China as though it were directly under the domination of the Dragon.}

The view north looking down from the Stockton Tunnel in the vintage picture was taken in 1948.

MysterySleeveCTownuseLater on Clane drives along Grant Avenue in Chinatown at night with Sou Ha.

{Ahead of them lay the weird intermarriage of the Occident and the Orient, which is San Francisco’s Chinatown. Neon lights blazoned Chinese characters in a crimson glare which turned the overhanging fog bank into wine. Plate glass show windows, brilliantly lighted with electricity, displayed delicate embroideries which had been sewed by the flickering flames of peanut oil-lamps.}

It didn’t look much different when I walked along Grant Avenue on a pretty night last Thursday. The vintage picture from the 1950s and mine are looking toward Clay Street from near Commercial Street.

MysteriesSirenuse‘Siren in the Night’ written in 1942 by Leslie Ford received the best reviews of the books I read, but I found it really slow in parts. It concerns a murder committed during a blackout and siren warning alerting San Franciscans of a possible air raid that was common in the city in 1942. In one chapter the heroine, lady detective Grace Latham, walks down Nob Hill with a Colonel John Primrose from the Mark Hopkins Hotel to Jack’s Restaurant on Sacramento near Montgomery Streets. Written in first person, Detective Latham describes the San Francisco sites as they walk along.

MysterySirenCCaruse{We walked down California Street. The cable cars clanging up the hill were jammed with people sticking on like caviar on a forty –five degree oblong of toast.}

They used to pack people on cable cars like that long ago, but for safety reasons it isn’t allowed anymore. The vintage picture was taken in 1950.

MysterySirenStMaryuse{The clock on the square dark tower of St. Mary’s was striking seven. The gold inscription above it – “Son Behold the Time and Fly From Evil” – was glistening in the low shafts of sunlight through the Square across the street.}

The Ecclesiasticus proverb actually reads, “Son, Observe the Time and Fly From Evil”; I don’t know if Leslie Ford misquoted it or if that was how it was written on the tower in 1942, but it’s good advice and I always abide by it…… except when I don’t. The “Square across the street” is St. Mary’s Square.

MysterySunyetuse{The sun shone too on the stainless steel robe of Sun Yat-sen , his rose marble face , benign and placid, gazing out over the green Square.}

Beniamino Bufano’s statue of Sun Yat-sen is still in St Mary’s Square and was visited by Madame Chaing Kai-shek during World War Two. The vintage picture of the statue is from 1956.

MysterySirenCTownuse{We turned the corner where the five-tiered pagoda towers stand, green and yellow faded to chartreuse.}

The pagoda towers are the two buildings on the north and south west corners of Grant Avenue and California Street. I suppose they’re still chartreuse in color now, once I figure out what that color looks like. Latham and Primrose came down California Street here and turned north onto Grant Avenue. The Mark Hopkins Hotel is at the top of the hill in both pictures. The vintage picture was taken in 1962.

MysterySirenSacramentouse{We turned down Sacramento Street through the crowded section where Chinatown streams across it into the deserted stretch toward Montgomery Street. There was a parking lot on either side of the restaurant we were going to.}

This is where they came down Sacramento Street. The restaurant isn’t named in the book, but it would have to have been Jack’s, seen on the left in the vintage picture from 1938. Jack’s closed in 2009.

MysteryCompanyuse‘Murder Loves Company’ is a long out of print book written in 1940 by John Mersereau. It takes place during the second year of the Golden Gate International Fair on Treasure Island. Although, corny at times, it’s page-packed with descriptions of many of the fair’s attractions and the best first-hand account of the world’s fair you’ll get in a book of fiction.

{Professor of horticulture James Yeats Biddle is more comfortable with his tomato plants than with dead bodies – or pretty young woman. But when one pretty young woman, reporter Kay Ritchie, hitches a ride in his aged but cherished sports car, Xantippe, he suddenly finds himself very much involved with both.}

MysteryCompanyBBridgeuseThe book opens up with a deadly accident just east of the Yerba Buena Tunnel that nearly involves Professor Biddle and a lady reporter named Kay Ritchie as they exit the tunnel while driving across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley.

{Xantippe emerged from the tunnel and shot out into the long cantilevered span, the reigning marvel of the modern world. The oncoming sedan passed inches to their left and with a rending impact, almost head on, struck the raised ramp. The car seemed to stop entirely for an instant against the massive railing of the bridge. The doors popped open. The roaring motor died convulsively. In slow motion, it seemed, the sedan rolled over and over, twice. In the roadway lay two bodies.}

The vintage picture is approaching the cantilever section of the Bay Bridge as you exited the tunnel in 1936 before the bridge opened. My picture is the view of the rebuilt east portion of the Bay Bridge today as you head east after leaving the Yerba Buena Tunnel.

MysteryDArtuseLater on in a visit to the fair, the book describes the Treasure Island attraction this way as Professor Biddle takes a ferryboat to the fair

{And what an island! Its cream and golden towers reared above the salt waves. It was an Aladdin’s palace, incredible beyond human dreams, an Atlantis reversed, a gleaming city that overnight rose out of the sea.}

There are only three surviving structures built for the fair, the Administration Building, a building that houses airplane hangars for the old China Clipper Airplanes, and the Decorative Arts Building seen in the vintage picture in 1940.













3 thoughts on “More mysteries and histories

  • Ah, Mr. Giannini, from Los Gatos. Actually, I don’t know when he came to Los Gatos or how long he lived here. The stone for the facades of the bank buildings came from a quarry outside of Los Gatos for a short while, and then came from a larger quarry near Almaden. The quarry in Los Gatos also supplied stone for the Novitiate, which is why the Novitiate buildings resemble the Bank of Italy Building in downtown San Jose. Retaining walls of the same stone are seen in the Villa Montalvo neighborhood of Saratoga.

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