Frisco Beat: A “Lost Book” Mystery

Every couple of years or so I get asked about a book someone has read and forgotten the title of — almost always a book that is a mystery set in San Francisco. Hey, you do the seminal statement, people figure out who to ask.

But even I have by no means read every mystery set in Frisco — they are legion — so when Rofiah Breen asked about a novel the other day, I just didn’t know. But I told her I could put the question out on Mean Streets and see if someone else recognizes the plot as something they’ve read. If you’ve got it, let me know.

Here’s Rofiah’s description of that lost book out of the past:

I am looking for a book my husband and I read in Indonesia when we lived up in the mountains on a tea estate in the ’70s. 

It belonged to the Indonesian owners of the main house. They had a row of some fifteen or twenty English books in their bedroom. We climbed the hill back to our bamboo cabin and read and read those books.

I thought I’d remember the title — or at least the name of the writer. Of course, I forgot it. So did my husband. I’ve searched for it endlessly since. 

When I returned to the tea estate in 2004, the husband was dying. I of course couldn’t intrude, though, of course, I tried to.

I’m wondering if you could help me find the name of the book or its author. I grew up in San Francisco (born 1942; left in 1965 to go teach in Newman,Ca). Reading the book in Indonesia in 1971 or so was a big deal: I just walked through S.F. the entire time.

The book is about a guy who at night is walking downtown on whatever street will take him to the wharf, where he’s planning to throw himself into the water and die. He’s used his last dime. Has no money whatsoever. It’s probably mid-fifties. Is he on Geary Street? Bush?  Sutter? I’m not sure. 

But behind him is a well-heeled couple who stop him and want him to exchange identity with the man (of the well-heeled couple) who is supposedly the long-lost relative of some fabulously rich San Francisco family. 

Suddenly, overnight he’s got a place to stay. (I believe he had been staying at some hotel on Broadway for a few nights up to then.) 

Now he’s with this couple, being drilled on all the events he is supposed to know if he is this other guy. He learns it all and greets his long-lost family who take him in. 

Of course it’s a ruse. 

The couple have, I believe, murdered the actual person our hero is assuming the identity of.  

Why can I not forget it, this book? It was just great. I was there. I knew every footstep and mark on the sidewalk.  

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