Collecting San Francisco Mysteries

For around a quarter of a century I had a nice little hobby going, collecting crime fiction set within the San Francisco city limits. Hammett started that one off, of course, but I discovered quite a few other writers I liked in addition to the creator of the Continental Op — Samuel W. Taylor, David Dodge, and Virginia Rath personal favorites among them.

Every now and then I would do an article based on the experience of tracking down these books. The first version appeared under the title “San Francisco Mysteries” in a special Frisco issue of the magazine Mystery dated September 1981. I even included a checklist of all the local mystery novels I knew of at the time. For the summer 1993 issue of The Argonaut: The Journal of the San Francisco Historical Society, I retooled that earlier article a bit and added a sidebar called “Histories and Mysteries,” pointing out how you can track down some pretty interesting local info if you just read enough crime novels.

I did a new version for Firsts: The Book Collectors Magazine, the April 2002 issue, where it appeared under the title “Murder in the City: San Francisco Mysteries” — most recently this incarnation appeared in a special Frisco issue of Mystery Readers Journal late in 2008 — editor Janet Rudolph provided a nice flourish by adding section titles to the text, such as “Collecting Hypermoderns” and “The Pursuit of Authenticity.”

As usual, though, the version you see here is my text, dropping some editorial touches made at Firsts, leaving the section titles behind as a distinguishing marker of the appearance in MRJ.

Near the end of the article I report that I have retired from the fray, donating my assembled collection to the Bancroft Library, where it is accessible to anyone interested in some criminous research. But then what happens but that Bancroft librarian Randal Brandt, another big fan of David Dodge, decides to put up a website devoted to San Francisco area mysteries, keeping it updated as new titles continue to appear. Do you know a local crime novel not on the list? Just pop it in to Randal and make the quest to gather a complete collection that much more difficult.

If you’re thinking about which hobby you should get into next, you could do worse than to try


By Don Herron

The tremendous lure of San Francisco began with the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills. That immediate onrush of the Forty-Niners created almost overnight a unique American city, rapidly climbing up the hills over the bay. The spectacle and drama of the earthquake and fire of 1906 cinched the enduring romance associated with the name. Only San Francisco, when you consider the matter, seems like the proper place to have served as such a locus for the Beats and the hippies. The recent waves of ambitious dot-commers, which poured in for the digital gold rush, are merely like an echo down history of the fortune-seekers that first put the place on the map of great cities of the world.

For book collectors, San Francisco offers almost limitless opportunities. Volumes about the city itself as one aspect of Western Americana, from the Mission era to this very moment. The early writings of reporter Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, before he left town to become one of the giants of world literature. Bret Harte. Ambrose Bierce. Accounts of the depredations of that desperado from Frisco known by the cool handle of Black Bart. The many titles by San Francisco native Jack London. The publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems by City Lights — a landmark censorship case. So much — hundreds of writers and poets you might collect, and every neighborhood has its stories.

I sampled many of the local collecting angles before deciding that gathering shelf upon shelf of mysteries set in San Francisco would be my game. That novels about crime and detection should attract my attention, however, is no kind of mystery. In 1977 I began doing the Dashiell Hammett Tour through the streets of the city, a tribute to the greatest private eye writer ever to live in San Francisco. Hammett had traveled the country as an operative for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency before moving to the city in the summer of 1921. While here he began writing stories based on his experiences for the pulp pages of The Black Mask magazine. Before taking off for New York and then Hollywood in the fall of 1929, he had written most of the novels that have made him a lasting figure in literature — only The Thin Man was written in its entirety after he left San Francisco.

Better yet, because he liked to write about what he knew, Hammett set many of his stories in the city where he was living. His San Francisco stands as one of the great literary treatments of a city, and has been compared with Joyce’s Dublin and Dickens’ London for its evocation of time and place, the days in the 1920s when night-fog cloaked the berg and tough yeggs and still tougher dicks were afoot. Most of his series of three novels and over two dozen short stories and novelettes about a short fat nameless operative for the Continental Detective Agency takes place in San Francisco and environs. For people who know the streets, these Continental Op tales are a vein of ultra-tough solid gold — among the best hard-boiled fiction of all time, set on pavement you can walk any time you feel like it. The short Op novel The Big Knockover, in particular, is a tour de force run over the hills of the town, hitting neighborhoods even people who have lived here for years have yet to visit.

And then there’s this one book, The Maltese Falcon. Just as London has hundreds of detectives, but the first name that comes to mind is Sherlock Holmes, so too does San Francisco have her detective: Sam Spade. No other novel has excited so much interest here, or sent so many people scurrying over the hills as they shadow Spade’s movements in his search for the fabulous figurine of a mysterious black bird. The Maltese Falcon gave a mythic icon to San Francisco, with the image of the private eye in snapbrim hat and trenchcoat stalking through the fog as integral a part of local lore as the 1906 earthquake and fire is of the history.

The first edition of this novel, published by Knopf in 1930, recently reached a new high with a documented sale for $135,000 — a price that has left many book people incredulous and put ever owning a copy out of my league. I confess I would have had a hard time cracking that safe only a year before, when nice copies in jackets were fetching cheques in the $15,000 to $30,000 range. Even when I started doing the walks, fine copies hovered close to a thousand or three, and I just never have burned enough rubber off my gumshoes to catch up with the market, I guess. All of Hammett’s first set of novels from Knopf, including Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), The Glass Key (1931) and The Thin Man (1934), have been something I long have admired from afar, and getting farther all the time.

I know you can always get lucky, of course. In the days when that arch-bookman Dennis McMillan lived in San Francisco, as he was just starting his publishing empire, we used to book about — amazing to see how Dennis always would spot the title resting on the cheap tables that was really worth $40 to $100. We visited one collector in San Jose, who had narrowed his library down to books signed by their authors. Most were a puzzle to me, merely pop self-help books with a John Hancock. The signed Mein Kampf, however, I realized was a coup. But most impressive of all was the inscribed first of Hammett’s Red Harvest. No dustjacket, some wear, but by no means bad. “To Bettye,” it read, “Affectionately yours, Dashiell Hammett.” No doubt about the authenticity of the holograph (I’m still a bit suspicious about the Hitler, though). And this fellow had found this copy for a dollar at a garage sale. I confess that I have never felt that lucky in my entire life, but I can see McMillan nabbing that kind of deal some day. All I can hope to do is spend long hours speculating about who this Bettye may have been. . . .

Once you get past the high ticket Knopfs, my Hammett shelf is okay. On the story collections from the forties and fifties, I actually prefer the reprinted Dell Mapback versions to the first edition digest format issued by Spivak, where age has been especially unkind to the paper. The combination of the cover art with the crime scene maps on the flip side give those Dell paperbacks considerable charm, and more than once I have thought that I really need a complete set of all the Mapbacks. I know collectors with complete sets, but so far have resisted the siren call. The most interesting Hammett first in my hands is not a distinguished edition, just the 1965 Knopf omnibus of The Novels of Dashiell Hammett (and that not even the first time the novels were assembled under one set of covers). The provenance makes this one a favorite. This copy belonged to James Sandoe, mystery critic and author of the seminal early work The Hard-Boiled Dick: A Personal Check-List (1952). In a small neat hand in pencil Sandoe signed his name on the front flyleaf, and several note-size pages with his later thoughts and questions about what Hammett was up to remain as inserts in the book.

If my collection of Hammett never became a cause for egomania, though, leading the tour for awhile occasioned delusions of grandeur. I veered close to the description Hammett once gave for Sam Spade, when he wrote:

Spade had no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached”a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

After leading 30 or 40 Hammett tours I picked up that attitude, too. Not that I have much in common with Sam Spade — I don’t smoke, and prefer Jack Daniels to Bacardi. Still, I was getting cocky. People on the tour would ask a question, and I’d pop with some kind of answer every time.

But on one walk the dream detective got yanked back into the real world, when someone asked, “Have there been many mysteries set in San Francisco, other than those by Hammett?”

My answer was quick: “No. Not many.” I mentioned the novels by the current local mystery writers Joe Gores, Bill Pronzini and Collin Wilcox. I cited Poul Anderson’s three novels featuring the Norwegian-Japanese detective Trygve Yamamura — Perish by the Sword (1959), Murder in Black Letter (1960), and Murder Bound (1962) — which are set across the Bay Bridge in the East Bay, but feature a chapter where Yamamura comes over to the city. And I probably dropped the name of Lenore Glen Offord, crime novelist and the then current mystery critic for the local paper, before concluding, “And that’s about it.”

An older woman on the tour spoke up. “What about David Dodge?”

I thought, David Dodge, David Dodge. . . . Who the hell is David Dodge? “Uh, what did he write?”

Death and Taxes was one of his books. Part of it takes place on Telegraph Hill. He’s my cousin.”

Soon I tracked this book down — Dodge’s first novel, fast, witty, lots of boozing, along the lines of Hammett’s The Thin Man. Death and Taxes (1941) featured hard-boiled CPA James Whitney as its amateur sleuth. Dodge, who had been working as an accountant in the financial district, had Whit return in Shear the Black Sheep (1942), my personal favorite of the series, but in Bullets for the Bridegroom (1944) sends him off to Reno to get married.

Returning from wartime service, however, Dodge’s mood had darkened, demonstrated in the final and most famous title in this series, It Ain’t Hay (1946), a classic anti-marijuana track — a mystery equivalent to the cult film Reefer Madness. Whit’s back in the berg, but where the previous books had been light and fun, this one is a downer. Describing the killer weed, Dodge writes, “Look at some of these musicians that use it. It excites them, makes them high and hot, so they can beat the music out faster, get in extra licks they couldn’t handle otherwise. They’re in the groove, and the groove is boogie-woogie — for them. For somebody else, the groove is rape or murder or arson.” The plot? A 17-year-old kid, after smoking “two reefers he bought in a pool hall,” clubs to death his father, mother and 14-year-old sister with a baseball bat. All I can say is that they must have had some super-powerful dope back in the forties.

Soon Dodge left San Francisco to travel in Mexico and Central America, writing travel books and various mysteries set in these new locales (such as Plunder of the Sun, about Inca treasure). Next he moved on to Europe, the setting for his most famous novel, To Catch a Thief (1952), immortalized on film by Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

I realized I had been playing the sap. If a crime writer as entertaining as Dodge had escaped my notice, could there be others?

Once I got on the case, the writers working the San Francisco scene began piling up like bodies in a Continental Op story. Earl Derr Biggers’ famous sleuth Charlie Chan solved a murder here in Behind That Curtain (1928), the same year Hammett created Sam Spade in the pages of Black Mask. Perry Mason’s creator Erle Stanley Gardner had another of his detectives, Terry Clane, sleuthing about Chinatown in Murder Up My Sleeve (1937). Travis McGee prowled through town in John D. MacDonald’s The Quick Red Fox (1964), declaring that where San Francisco used to give it away, now she was selling it — but as Spade said back when, there’s nothing in the city that can’t be bought, or taken. Ross MacDonald’s private eye Lew Archer came up from southern California a few times, in The Underground Man (1971) trying to talk a young girl out of making a suicide leap off a bridge 200 feet down into the cold waters of the bay. Adventure specialist Alastair MacLean did his duty with The Golden Gate (1976). Even the modern hard-boiled great James Crumley took a spin through town in his masterpiece The Last Good Kiss (1978). His hero C. J. Sughrue, drinking too much, per norm, bumped his machine into one of San Francisco’s famous cable cars and wondered why everyone was making such a big deal over it — they were treating it as if he’d run into a national monument! Of course, the cable cars are national monuments — the only moving national monuments.

Putting together a checklist, I had titles going back to the Dime Novel era — for Beadle and Adams a “Howard Holmes’ knocked out Cool Conrad, The Dakota Detective; or, From Lair to Lair, a Tale of Frisco and the Gold Camps (1885), plus Father Ferrett, the Frisco Shadow; or, The Queen of Bowie Notch (1886) and Volcano, the Frisco Spy; or, The Secret of the Seven (1887). Fresh San Francisco mysteries were appearing every day, with at that time Marcia Muller and her detective Sharon McCone, introduced in Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977), being the Newest of the New — and now Muller is considered the Grandmother of the Modern Female Private Eye Novel. I put Milton Raison’s The Gay Mortician (1946) on the list and picked up Thom Racina’s paperback TV tie-in Kojak in San Francisco (1976). The Phoenix Press, notorious for publishing bad, really bad, mysteries, issued The Corpse with Knee Action (1940) by B. J. Maylon. Not bad at all — at least a B+, and I think anyone who jumps into collecting San Francisco crime fiction must have this one. Few titles provide such a double-whammy collecting angle. Set in the city, this mystery is also a nice associational item for people interested in native son Jack London. “B. J. Maylon” is a penname for Barney Mayes and his wife Joan London, Jack’s older daughter.

As my list grew, I realized I could use it as a means to put a bridle on the general impulse to buy books, any and all books — I’m sure you know that feeling. Yes, I’d still purchase my favorite authors, but instead of wandering into a store and experiencing the overwhelming need to buy the new biography of Mickey Rooney and books on Shaker furniture — in short, almost every book in the place — I could apply some discipline. I’d master that almost uncontrollable impulse to purchase books at large by limiting myself to mysteries set in San Francisco. To retain the delicious sense of anything goes, I figured I’d collect any book that might be called a mystery — good, bad or indifferent, taking place entirely within city limits or just lighting down for a chapter or two. From hard-boiled yarns in the tradition of Hammett and the Black Mask gang to classical puzzle yarns following the lead of Agatha Christie and the Detection Club. Police procedural, caper, thriller, spy, professional or amateur sleuth, even — what the hell — paperbacks about steely-eyed-hitmen-out-to-stomp-the-Mafia.

I rounded up Lenore Glen Offord’s Murder on Russian Hill (1938), Dana Lyon’s The House on Telegraph Hill (1948), and Howard Pease’s The Mystery of Telegraph Hill (1961). The Haight-Ashbury was taken care of in Hildegarde Withers Makes the Scene (1969) by Stuart Palmer and Fletcher Flora, and in The Pushbutton Butterfly (1970) by Kin Platt, among other mysteries. Escapees from San Quentin always seemed to beeline straight for the city, as shown by David Goodis’ Dark Passage (1946) and Jack Finney’s House of Numbers (1955). The earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906 figured in The Avalanche (1919), one of the few mysteries written by mainstream novelist Gertrude Atherton — and in Shaken Down (1925) by Alice MacGowan and Perry Newberry, Thunderbolt House (1944) by Howard Pease, and Casa Madrone (1980) by Mignon G. Eberhart.

Some of these books I especially liked. John Mersereau’s Murder Loves Company (1940), set on Treasure Island in the middle of the bay during the 1939 World’s Fair, is as funny as the best of David Dodge. The Mormon historical writer Samuel W. Taylor did okay with The Grinning Gizmo (1951), but produced one of my all-time favorite mysteries in The Man with My Face (1948), in which a businessman catches the 5:29 commute train south to Redwood City, only to find a lookalike in his home. Rejected as an imposter by his wife and friends, he begins a journey into nightmare, inexplicably shadowed by a mysterious trench-coated man who keeps a savage Doberman straining at the end of a leash. Hiding in the woods, the hero catches a bad case of poison oak, and by a deliciously horrid instance of serendipity I too had caught my worst case ever just as I started reading this novel. My identification with the protagonist was complete — but it remains a fine read even if you aren’t ravaged by poison oak.

Fred Zackel’s first novel Cocaine and Blue Eyes (1978) had some good lines, such as “The telephone caught me poolside at the cocktail hour. I set my beer in the soap dish, dangled my hand over the bathtub and caught the Princess by the second ring.” This book has an extended local connection — it was made into a TV movie starring the now notorious San Francisco native O. J. Simpson. As is often the case, however, Zackel’s next private eye novel, Cinderella After Midnight (1980), always has been a tougher book to track down — the second novel syndrome with which we’re all familiar. Also fun were the Riley Kovachs books by Gordon DeMarco, beginning with October Heat (1979), where we are informed, “The ashtray at his elbow had more butts in it than the chorus line at Radio City Music Hall.”

San Francisco had its share of series mysteries long before Gores, Wilcox, Pronzini or even Muller started their careers. (And today it seems as if almost every other person I meet is writing a crime series set in San Francisco — you can’t even take a nap anymore without three or four new series being launched.) George Dyer did three novels about The Catalyst Club, beginning with one of that name in 1936. Robert Finnegan, an alias of Paul William Ryan, a.k.a. labor writer “Mike Quin,” did two Dan Banion P.I. novels, The Bandaged Nude (1946) and Many a Monster (1948) — first editions from Simon and Schuster almost always devastated by severe browning of the paper. Hugh Lawrence Nelson wrote four local crime novels about Steve Johnson, starting with The Copper Lady (1947). From 1942 to 1960 Francis Crane wrote six novels set in San Francisco featuring the husband and wife team of Pat and Jean Abbott — plus another twenty in which the pair solve murders when they’re out of town. Also in the forties Mary Collins did three mysteries set in the city, but her friend Virginia Rath, like the prolific Crane, came closer to the modern concept of a series with eight novels about Michael Dundas, starting with The Dark Cavalier in 1938. Dundas runs Giselle’s, a fashionable women’s clothing store, and always comments on the apparel of the women he encounters — whether suspects or murder victims. Rath was especially good at using genuine streets for her chase scenes, a quality you come to appreciate when you are collecting to get a feeling for a particular place.

When Jerry Kennealy began his current series about Nick Polo with Polo Solo in 1988, his use of the investigator’s name in the titles was prefigured by Jay Flynn in the Avon paperback originals McHugh (1959), A Body for McHugh (1960) and It’s Murder McHugh (1960). Henry Kuttner (like Poul Anderson better known as a science fiction writer) also did a short series of paperback originals — The Murder of Eleanor Pope (1956), The Murder of Ann Avery (1956), Murder of a Mistress (1957), and Murder of a Wife (1958), all for Perma — novels collected not only for the San Francisco angle but because the detective, Michael Gray, is an analyst. Lots of people out there looking for shrink sleuth novels. The Killer in Silk by H. Vernor Dixon, a 1956 PBO from Gold Medal, is highly rated. The first edition paperbacks of Don Pendleton’s California Hit (1972) — the eleventh adventure of Mack Bolan, the Executioner — and V. J. Santiago’s San Francisco: Kill or be Killed (1976) — the third escapade of The Vigilante — provided catharsis for a revenge-hungry public.

Currently, the most hotly collected writer who wrote paperback originals set in San Francisco is Charles Willeford. Now a giant presence in the crime field, his first published novel was a seedy noir underbelly-of-society romp featuring a sociopathic used car salesman. Titled High Priest of California (1953), it first saw print as the back half of a Royal Giant double from Universal Publishing and Distributing Corporation, with the adventure novel Full Moon by Talbot Mundy up front. The second novel in Willeford’s San Francisco Trilogy, Pick-up, appeared in 1955 from Beacon Books, another imprint of Universal Publishing. A dark classic, it recently made the cut for the prestigious two-volume Library of America selection of noir. In 1956 High Priest saw print again in a double volume under the Beacon banner, backed up this time by a new novel by Willeford himself, Wild Wives, appearing thus in first edition. The only private eye novel Willeford ever wrote, Wild Wives starts off with the archetypal genre entrance of the femme fatale into P.I. Jacob Blake’s office. Only Willeford pictures her as an underage girl who blasts Blake with a squirt gun, the typical absurd touch that has made his work so admired. And don’t forget that the brilliant hardback crime novel Miami Blues (1984), the book which effectively put Willeford’s name on myriad want lists, kicks off in San Francisco. The “blithe psychopath” Freddy Frenger Junior gets out of San Quentin and rounds up plane fare to Florida by doing a few muggings around Union Square.

Of recent San Francisco mysteries, the opening entry in Laurie R. King’s ongoing series featuring Kate Martinelli has become the most valuable first of which I have knowledge. A Grave Talent (1993) earned the Edgar Allan Poe award as best first mystery of the year, attracting attention from collectors that pursue Edgar winners. I suspect King’s next book, the first novel in the Mary Russell series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994), helped bring collectors’ interest in her work to critical mass. The Mary Russell novels prominently feature Sherlock Holmes, of course, and Holmes has pulled dollars steadily out of collectors’ pockets for over a century. These factors, or some other unidentifiable touch that says collectable, have jumped first edition copies of A Grave Talent to $750 and sometimes higher, a leap into the price levels marking hypermodern inflation, bringing in far more money than almost any San Francisco mystery this side of Hammett. The first state of the first edition from St. Martin’s, by the way, is identifiable because the Hebrew inscription on the title page appears upside down.

How long books hovering in the hypermodern price range will hold their value is hard to say. Fame can be fleeting, and what you think you should be known for may not be what lasts (consider Arthur Conan Doyle, who never seemed to understand the appeal of Holmes!). The late Collin Wilcox did no less than three series set in San Francisco, with the novels about Lieutenant Frank Hastings of the SFPD being the longest running. Before he created Hastings for The Lonely Hunter (1969), though, Wilcox had his own shop on trendy Union Street where he made and sold designer lamps (and nodded to this occupation later with some novels written under the name “Carter Wick”). Wilcox once told me when he was well into his run of mysteries that he was paying a bill with a credit card and the clerk noticed his name. “You’re not the Collin Wilcox!” she shouted in great excitement. Dusting off his modesty routine, the prolific author admitted that he was the Collin Wilcox. “Oh, Mr. Wilcox,” exclaimed the woman, “I just adore your lamps!”

The series of Daniel Kearny Associates novels by Joe Gores, which started with Dead Skip (1972), are fun books, showing the day-to-day workings of a repossession agency — no one portrays the hot joy of fishtailing away in a popped car as well as Gores. In the early books in this series and in stand-alone novels such as Interface (1974), he paid extremely close attention to his street scenes, providing such detailed accuracy you’d practically stumble over the garbage cans left on the curb the night before. Gores worked as a real-life skip tracer and repossessor for years and based these books on the experience, just as Hammett based the Continental Op tales on his years with Pinkerton’s. But in the most recent entry, Cons, Scams and Grifts (2001), I noticed that while Gores has risen from his beginning days as a modern tough guy writer to a level of true narrative mastery, he has gotten a bit loose with his streets in the meantime. For example, Gores describes Beaumont as running only one block from Geary to Turk, whereas we all know it runs for two blocks and crosses Anza. And somehow he gets Larry Ballard from a gypsy knife fight near Broadway and Taylor over to Columbus and Taylor without ever mentioning the high crest of Russian Hill you have to climb over, a detail Virginia Rath would not have omitted. Oh well, most people will never notice, and it is good to see this long running series still moving along. I have met Gores a few times over the years — a nice guy, although I have to say I can never get completely comfortable around him, because I’m always worried he may sneak out and steal my car.

Before heading off to create her popular series about Skip Langdon and New Orleans, Julie Smith started out as a San Francisco mystery writer with her first novel Death Turns a Trick (1982). Her next novel also is set in the city, and brings in another San Francisco trademark — sourdough bread. The Sourdough Wars (1984) is another example of the scarce second novel syndrome — in my experience this title from Walker usually suffers a split front hinge, so it is very tough to find in collectable condition. We used to kid Julie about the moment in the first one where someone turns left from Sansome on to Green to get to the top of Telegraph Hill. You turn left from Sansome on to Green, you run into a cliff. Even though he too is a local, Bill Pronzini in Shackles (1988) pulls off this same kind of error, having his detective exit the freeway on to Army and drive straight up to Castro — sorry, after several blocks again you hit a cliff.

I know that the best-selling mystery writer Robert B. Parker visited San Francisco before writing A Catskill Eagle (1985), but he sure didn’t pick up a lot of details. Parker pictures his characters Spenser and Hawk figuring ways to sneak out of town. Ultimately, they decide to head south down the peninsula rather than north over the Golden Gate, because if they drove north they would have to stop at the toll gate before entering Marin County. The toll booths, of course, are at the south end of the bridge — the route north is completely open. No doubt Spenser and Hawk are a little more savvy when bopping around Boston.

Other writers, well, I bet many an author of a San Francisco mystery never set foot in the city before typing page after page about murder in the fog. Take K. R. Dwyer, a professional writer then living in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with Shattered (1973). His scenario is that a guy is driving cross-country to join his bride in San Francisco, along the way stalked by her psycho ex-boyfriend. The climax occurs in the city, and here’s the problem: Dwyer must have felt he needed some room for his psycho to stalk around in — or wanted to remove his newlyweds’ house from close neighbors so no one would hear yelling (maybe even a scream or two). So he has them living in a house near the Presidio with “almost three acres of land around it.” Ha! Sure. Nowhere in San Francisco.

And get this: the guy has bought this house on three acres, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, on a salary of “thirty-five thousand dollars a year.” Even in 1973, that’s a riot. Or, as local Mary Collins wrote back in 1943 in The Sister of Cain, when a member of the family living in an old mansion on Russian Hill talks about spending some extra money: “”On the income from a hundred thousand bucks? Don’t be silly,” Marthe said. “Do you know what the taxes are on this place?””

Taxes, bridge views, $35,000 a year. . . Don’t feel too much pity, though, for “K. R. Dwyer.” He kept writing and eventually dropped all his pen names such as “Dwyer” and “Leigh Nicholls’ and today, just plain old Dean Koontz no doubt has a better grasp on economics.

While I still keep my hand in by reading the occasional local mystery, after twenty years of collecting them I figured I had had enough. I’d never close down my want list with more and more mysteries appearing each year, plus the desire to just go wild finally reasserted itself — only today I picked up a buyer’s guide to collecting tribal rugs, and I know I will never collect tribal rugs. I decided the best place for my collection, checklists and notes would be the Bancroft Library in the University of California at Berkeley. Less my Hammett and Willeford collections, of course — perhaps later, but I’ll keep those nearby for awhile longer.

Anyone who may want a start on gathering titles for their own collection can look up what I assembled online under The Don Herron Collection of San Francisco Mystery Stories. Or go to the college and copy my notes, handle some of the books. A catalog from the Bancroft noted, “When you consider that mystery stories are generally read to death, the condition of the books in the Herron Collection is exceptional.” Thank you, thank you. But the mighty collector now seeks fresh game. Dell Mapbacks, at last? A complete Arkham House run? Something Civil War? Time will tell.

The special appeal provided by mystery fiction set in and over the city’s hills I think is captured well in this quote from William Worley’s little known My Dead Wife (1948), set on Telegraph Hill:


Jessie had been murdered.

I jerked erect, flung open the front door and clattered down the stairs before I was conscious of purpose. The night air was cold against my face. The street was empty. As far down as Columbus Avenue I could see only a woman leading a child by the hand.

I ran uphill a dozen paces to the parapet and looked in the opposite direction towards Montgomery, where the street dropped steeply by concrete steps. No one there. Nothing. A hundred blank doorways, a thousand shadows, a million hiding places for murder.

Or, should you decide to get in on the hunt, a million hiding places for books about murder by San Francisco Bay. With hundreds of titles to track down and acquire, I can confirm it is a satisfying and involved hobby, and another interesting way to encounter and explore a truly great city.