Bullets Across the Bay


The San Francisco Bay Area’s history is punctuated by a series of defining events that have stirred the interest and the pens of mystery writers. Real-life earthquakes, fires, world’s fairs, labor unrest, and elusive serial killers have appeared in the pages of mystery novels as a way to ground the stories in verisimilitude, to add local color, and to propel the plots.

Richard Summers (1906-1969)
New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949.
Bancroft PS3537.U65.V5 1949

In 1856, Lucky Langmeade, a hard-bitten successful mine-owner from Sacramento, is visiting San Francisco when he gets caught up in the revival of the notorious Committee of Vigilance, which is responding to the increasing lawlessness and corruption of the city.

Sara Dean (b. 1870)
Travers: A Story of the San Francisco Earthquake
New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1908.
Main (NRLF) 961.D281.t | Bancroft F855.1.D282t

This 1908 novel, the tale of a San Francisco socialite’s efforts to rehabilitate a thief whom she discovers in her bedroom in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, was one of the first (if not the first) fictional treatments of the 1906 earthquake and features graphic descriptions of the city and its residents in the wake of the disaster.

Alice MacGowan (1858-1947) and Perry Newberry (1870-1938)
Shaken Down
New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925.
Main PS3525.A239.S4 1925

In April 1906, Patrolman Jerry Boyne of the San Francisco Police Department gets involved in a kidnapping case. Frustrated at being taken off the case by his captain, Jerry investigates on his own and uncovers widespread political corruption. He is about to break the case wide open and expose some of San Francisco’s most powerful men when the earthquake strikes and the city itself is literally shaken down.

Anthony Flacco
The Hidden Man
New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.
Bancroft PS3606.L33.H53 2008

San Francisco homicide detective Randall Blackburn and his adopted son, Shane Nightingale, “combine their intuitive profiling skills with novel detective techniques to solve a murder that hasn’t happened yet”—that of a mesmerist at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Gordon DeMarco
October Heat
London: Pluto Press, 1984 (orig. pub.: San Francisco: Germinal Press, 1979).
Main PS3554.E448.O25 1984 | Bancroft PS3554.E448.O25 1979

In October 1934, San Francisco private investigator Riley Kovachs takes a case that involves the killing of a longshoreman during the waterfront strikes and a plot to disrupt Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California.

David Duncan
Worse Than Murder
New York: Pocket Books, 1954 (orig. pub.: The Bramble Bush. New York: Macmillan, 1948).
Bancroft PS3507.U6.B7 1954

Mike Finney, a labor agitator wanted by the Feds because of his activities during the San Francisco dock strike of 1934, returns to San Francisco under an assumed identity in order to clear his name only to find that he is now wanted for murder.

John Mersereau (1898-1989)
Murder Loves Company
Boulder, Colo.: The Rue Morgue Press, 2004 (orig. pub.: Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1940).
Bancroft PS3525.E67.M8 2004 | Bancroft PS3525.E67.M8 1940

John Mersereau drew on his own time as a student at the University of California for this 1940 tale of herbicide and homicide. Horticulturist James Yeats Biddle, the youngest professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is responsible for the ancient olive trees that have been transplanted on Treasure Island for the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition. He becomes a reluctant sleuth when two Japanese gardeners who have been working with the trees turn up dead.

Rupert Holmes (1947- )
New York: Random House, 2005.
Main PS3558.O367.S95 2005

Jazz saxophonist and arranger Ray Sherwood is helping University of California student Gail Prentice with her composition, called “Swing Around the Sun,” which is to be played at the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, when a young woman plunges to her death from the fair’s emblematic Tower of the Sun and Sherwood becomes involved in the investigation of the girl’s death.

Jerry Weissman
The Zodiac Killer
Los Angeles: Pinnacle Books, 1979.
Bancroft PS3573.E41685.Z6 1979

In this novel based on the infamous serial killings that occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1968-1969 there is no mystery about the identity of the killer who calls himself “Zodiac.” Robert Bennett is a troubled young man whose sexual frustrations lead him to murder. He begins a twisted correspondence with the police and the newspapers, creating ciphers that purport to contain his identity. When San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paula Avery (based on real-life Chronicle reporter Paul Avery) starts writing about the killings, she attracts Bennett’s attention and becomes a target.

Mona Matlock
On the Edge of the Fault
Fairfax, Calif.: Vici Publishing, 2001.
Private collection

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake interrupts San Francisco attorney Katrina Faulkerson’s investigation of the murder of a doctor who is involved in the underworld of child pornography and prostitution.

Michael Castleman
The Lost Gold of San Francisco
Henderson, Nev.: 21st-Century Publishing, 2003.
Bancroft PS3603.A88.L67 2003

Michael Castleman’s book is unique in the canon of earthquake novels in that its plot provides a direct link between the Big One in 1906 and the “pretty big” one in 1989. Reporter Ed Rosenberg is investigating a story that has its origins in one of the myths of the 1906 earthquake, that a shipment of mis-struck double-eagle gold coins that went missing during the chaos of the quake and fire, when the Loma Prieta earthquake strikes and brings a decisive end to the mystery.


Early Mysteries
Dashiell Hammett
Anthony Boucher
Mystery Writers of America
Muller & Pronzini
Counter Culture and Diversity
Historic Events
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