Bullets Across the Bay


The City by the Bay has long been a favored vacation destination. Every year thousands of tourists visit the Bay Area for its history, culture, and stunning views. Crime writers have also often succumbed to the siren call of San Francisco, bringing their fictional detectives with them to solve crimes while taking in the sights.

In John D. MacDonald’s (1916-1986) The Quick Red Fox, published as a paperback original by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1964, Florida PI Travis McGee goes cross-country on a nasty blackmail case. When he reaches San Francisco, he is clearly not charmed:

“San Francisco is the most depressing city in America. The come-latelys might not think so. They may be enchanted by the steep streets up Nob and Russian and Telegraph, by the sea mystery of the Bridge over to redwood country on a foggy night, by the urban compartmentalization of Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Japanese, by the smartness of the women and the city’s iron clutch on culture. It might look just fine to the new ones.

But there are too many of us who used to love her. She was like a wild classy kook of a gal, one of those rain-walkers, laughing gray eyes, tousle of dark hair—sea misty, a lithe and lively lady, , who could laugh at you or with you, and at herself when needs be. A sayer of strange and lovely things. A girl to be in love with, with love like a heady magic.

But she had lost it, boy. She used to give it away, and now she sells it to the tourists. She imitates herself. Her figure has thickened. The things she says now are mechanical and memorized. She overcharges for cynical services.

Maybe if you are from Dayton or Amarillo or Wheeling or Scranton or Camden she can look like magic to you because you have not had a chance to see what a city can be. This one had her chance to go straight and she lost it somehow, and it has been downhill for her ever since. That’s why she is so depressing to those of us who knew her when. We all know what she could have been, and we all know the lousy choice she made. She has driven away the ones who loved her best. A few keep trying. Herb Caen. A few others. But the love words have a hollow tone these days.”

Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933)
Behind That Curtain
Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1928.
Main PS3503.I26.B4 1928 | Bancroft PS3503.I26.B4 1928

Detective-Sergeant Charlie Chan of the Honolulu police solves a mystery in San Francisco when, while awaiting passage back to Hawaii, he gets involved in the murder of a retired Scotland Yard inspector who was in San Francisco pursuing clues in the only unsolved murder of his career.

A.A. Fair (pseudonym of Erle Stanley Gardner, 1889-1970)
Top of the Heap
New York: William Morrow, 1952.
Private collection

Private eye Donald Lam, of the Los Angeles agency of Cool & Lam, lands in San Francisco while investigating a spoiled rich kid who hired him to establish a phony alibi. While in the city, he digs up a mining scam, an illegal casino, and a couple of murders. Gardner also brought his most famous creation, lawyer Perry Mason, to San Francisco for The Case of the Substitute Face in 1938.

Sue Grafton (1940- )
“K” is for Killer
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994.
Main PS3557.R13.K2 1994

While investigating the death of a young receptionist who moonlighted as a high-priced call girl, private investigator Kinsey Millhone from Santa Teresa, California (a fictionalized version of Santa Barbara that was, incidentally, created by Ross Macdonald) visits San Francisco to see a pornographer in Pacific Heights and a transvestite in Haight-Ashbury.

Walter Mosley
Cinnamon Kiss
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.
Main PS3563.O88456.C56 2005 | Bancroft PS3563.O88456.C56 2005

Los Angeles investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins takes a job in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, working for an eccentric PI named Robert E. Lee, who asks him to search for the mysterious Philomena “Cinnamon” Cargill.


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