For the past hundred years, the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 have proven irresistible to writers. There are countless books on the subject, analyzing the disaster from every conceivable angle: historical, geological, sociological, political, pictorial, etc. The quake has also proven to be a popular device for fiction writers, both in mainstream literature and genre fiction. The events of 1906 provide the backdrop for a significant number of crime and mystery novels. Crime writers have employed the earthquake and fire in many creative and original ways. It has driven otherwise law-abiding citizens to commit criminal acts, provided the opportunity for people to change their identities, exposed criminal activity to the harsh light of day, and showed up as the ultimate deus ex machina, providing a solution—sometimes a permanent solution—to a particularly sticky mystery.


Travers (1908)The first earthquake novel out of the gate was Travers: A Story of the San Francisco Earthquake by Sara Dean. Although Travers is not a traditional mystery story, crime plays a central role in the plot. Published in February 1908, this is the story of a San Francisco socialite named Gwendolyn Thornton who is awoken at 4:30AM, April 18, 1906, by a thief in her Mission District home. As she confronts the intruder, the earthquake strikes, destroying her house and killing her aunt as she sleeps. The intruder helps Gwen escape and takes her to the safety of a refugee camp on Twin Peaks. In the days that follow, Gwen learns to know her rescuer, a British ex-army surgeon named Keith Travers, as they face the horrors caused by the quake and fire. Travers had been dismissed from his regiment following a scandal in India, eventually turning to a life of crime. The earthquake offers Travers a last chance at redemption and with Gwen’s support he is able to reclaim his reputation and standing in society. Written so soon after the actual earthquake, the novel features graphic descriptions of the city and it residents in the wake of the disaster.

But Nature now took her hand in this strange interview. Two sharp detonations sounded like the booming of artillery. A second later and the whole room vibrated, suddenly, with a sort of sullen determination. The chandelier swung violently, scattering the globes afar. Gwen’s dressing table tottered, danced forward, bowed and fell, hurling its burden of silver and glass in all directions. The book-case advanced a few feet into the room, then capsized, scattering a rain of volumes. The clock and two tall vases on the mantelpiece began a strange jig-reeling, drawing nearer to one another, retreating, bowing and becking in Bacchanalian fashion. The windows rattled madly in their casings as if shaken by a frenzied hand, then sash by sash, the glass shivered.

Gwendolyn clung to her brass bedstead. It was moving from side to side with a violent motion that threatened to throw her out upon the floor. The burglar reeled and grasped the foot of the bed for support, took a step and lunged with a heavy roll against the wall near by. At the same moment a picture above him fell with a heavy crash.

Around and about sounded the jarring rush of falling brick.

The shrill screams of the servants on the floor above reached Gwendolyn’s ears; and then gradually the fact stole over her consciousness that beneath and pervading all the scattered many-voiced pandemonium of sounds was the long, hollow, subterranean rumble, constant, deepening, but never ceasing—the ominous roll of the earthquake.

Gwendolyn prayed in gasps, clinging desperately to her heaving bed, all impressions blotted out, save the present all-absorbing fear of Mother Earth, turned on the sudden into an enemy and a menace.

A beam crushed through the ceiling above her head—then another. The writhing, jarring earth seemed to renew its fury and take on an added determination to annihilate. A rain of bricks began to pour into the room upon the bed, upon Gwendolyn.

Without a word the burglar flung himself toward her, sheltering her with his broad shoulders, deflecting the flying missiles as best he could. The air was full of mortar. His hands closed over her mouth, to keep out the floating, smothering grey powder.

The earth twisted, writhed, jarred on like a creature in torture; then suddenly all was still. (p. 51-53)

Very little is known about the author, Sara Dean. She was born in 1870 and published only one other novel (an “18th century love story”) in 1910. It is not known whether she experienced the earthquake herself, or merely fashioned a novel out of contemporary reports. Nevertheless, she gets credit for being the first on the scene.


The great California writer Gertrude Atherton used the 1906 earthquake to propel the plot of her one foray into mystery fiction. In The Avalanche (1919) the mystery is more genealogical than criminal. In San Francisco, in the years immediately following the earthquake, Price Ruyler has firmly established himself in business and society. He is married to a beautiful young French woman—who was actually born in San Francisco—named Hélène Delano. After he chances to overhear an exchange between his mother-in-law and a man known to have made his living as a pimp and a gambler before the earthquake and fire, he begins to suspect that his wife’s past might not be as innocent as he was led to believe. He hires a private detective named Jake Spaulding to investigate and uncovers a plot involving blackmail and betrayal.


Although all of the action in Boston Blackie (1919) takes place well after the earthquake (the book is a re-working of several short stories originally published 1917 to 1919 that are more or less contemporary), author Jack Boyle included a foreword in which he describes his first meeting the with notorious safe-cracker with the strong moral code. The meeting takes place in Golden Gate Park just days after the earthquake. In 1906, Boyle was working as a newspaper editor in San Francisco (before turning to a life of crime himself—serving three penitentiary sentences, during the second of which he started writing and publishing the “Boston Blackie” stories—and later becoming a successful author), so he obviously was writing from first-hand knowledge.

The great fire that followed the San Francisco earthquake had burned itself out. Half the city was a seared waste of smouldering ruins. Though the sky by night still reflected the red but dying glow of the wall of flame that had leaped from block to block like a pursuing creature of prey, the undevastated remnant was safe.

Those of us who had lived through the four unforgettable days of chaos just passed, began to look about us once more with seeing eyes. Men smiled again, as amid the ruin, they planned the reconstruction of a city more beautiful than the one they had lost. The indomitable spirit of a people united by a great and common disaster rose undaunted and hope mastered despair.

For the moment all men were equal. Gold had lost its value. Food, first of all necessities, was not for sale, and master and servant, banker and laborer, millionaire and beggar, waited together at the relief stations for their equal ration.

Every park, every square, every plot of ground was covered with the improvised camps of refugees. One hundred thousand people had fled from their homes before the incredibly swift sweep of the fire. They had fled with only such possessions as they could throw together in a moment and carry on their backs. With this inadequate material men built such makeshift shelters for their families as individual skill permitted. Each man was “on his own,” the sole protector and provider for his mate and children. (p. [5]-[6])


Shaken Down (1925)The earthquake arrives at a key moment and dramatically alters the course of the narrative in Shaken Down (1925) by Alice MacGowan and Perry Newberry. On an evening in April 1906, Patrolman Jerry Boyne of the San Francisco Police Department is walking his beat on Nob Hill when suddenly a horse-drawn cab hurtles past him and down the steep Mason Street hill. Fearing a certain smashup, he rushes to follow the cab. When a scream and a cry for the police divert him to the Claiborne mansion, he discovers that four-year-old Jamie Claiborne has been kidnapped and his nursemaid murdered. Thinking that this case will be what he needs to advance up the police ranks, Jerry immediately begins investigating. However, he is soon frozen out of the investigation when his captain, San Francisco’s political boss, and Hard Knox Gahagan, the youngest police commissioner in the city’s history, arrive to take over. Jamie’s father, James G. Claiborne, is convinced that his older daughter, Leonora, is behind the plot and declares that he will not be shaken down by her and her accomplices. At the urging of Norah, the Claiborne’s house-maid, with whom Jerry is in love, and believing that the runaway cab is a key to the case, he decides to conduct his own investigation and soon ends up on the wrong side of the law. Now he has both the kidnappers and the police after him. Just as he is about the break the case wide open—and expose some of San Francisco’s most powerful men—the earthquake strikes and the city itself is literally shaken down.


The Golden Crucible (1976)The British join the party in The Golden Crucible (1976) by Jean Stubbs. Retired Scotland Yard Inspector John Joseph Lintott attends a London performance of the famed magician Felix Salvador. When Bela Barak, a wealthy San Franciscan, kidnaps his young assistant, Alicia—who is also his sister—Salvador solicits Lintott to pursue them. With Lintott’s daughter, Lizzie, standing in for Alicia as the magician’s assistant, they travel to America. Once in San Francisco, Lintott goes undercover and discovers that the kidnapping is part of an elaborate revenge scheme. (Salvador had an affair with Barak’s wife, Francesca, when she was a young debutante. Francesca got pregnant and had a botched abortion, rendering her both barren and outcast from society.) Lintott finally negotiates Alicia’s release from a Barbary Coast brothel and they are one their way to reunite with Salvador and Lizzie when the earthquake strikes. This novel stands apart from other earthquake mysteries in that the mystery is effectively solved before the earthquake hits. The earthquake does manage to tie up some loose ends, meting out punishments and effecting salvations that Lintott has no control over, but is really an afterthought in the main plot.


Casa Madrone (1980)Mignon G. Eberhart, who wrote over 60 novels in her long career and was referred to as the “American Agatha Christie,” set exactly one story in San Francisco. Casa Madrone (1980) takes place in April 1906. The Bookever family of New York has fallen on hard times. After the death of her uncle, Mallory Bookever and her Aunt Flo Bel have had to sell off the jewelry, art collections, and even the silverware. But things have started to turn around. Mallory is engaged to Richard Welbeck, young, handsome, and heir to the San Francisco Welbeck fortune. Then news arrives that Richard has broken his leg and is too ill to return to New York. He asks that Mallory travel to San Francisco for the wedding in the company of his best friend, Scott Suydam. On the journey, strange things happen: someone attempts to pull Mallory off the train; a bottle of Flo Bel’s prescription chloral hydrate goes missing; and Mallory begins to have strong feelings for Scott. When they arrive in San Francisco, they find Richard to be an invalid in his Nob Hill mansion, and believe that his cousin Dolores is purposely keeping him that way. Then the earthquake strikes. In the aftermath, Richard is shot and killed. At first they believe him to have been struck by a stray bullet fired by a patrolling soldier. However, Mallory and Scott soon suspect that Richard has been murdered in order to prevent his marriage; when another attempt is made on Mallory’s life, they are convinced. As the fire approaches, everyone relocates to Scott’s home, Casa Madrone, where they struggle to put their lives back together and unmask a killer before he—or she—strikes again.


Fire and Fog (1996)Readers of Dianne Day’s Fire and Fog (1996) do not have to wait long for the earthquake to strike as series character Caroline “Fremont” Jones is literally shaken out of bed in the first three pages. Fremont is a plucky, independent typist-for-hire who has a knack for becoming an unwitting, amateur sleuth. She is in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, having left her family home in Boston to make her own way. This second book in the series opens at 5:12AM, April 18, 1906, as Fremont, in a Western Addition rooming house, is awoken from her dreams by the earthquake. At first, she is excited to be experiencing an earthquake. Her excitement quickly turns to terror as an armoire crashes onto her bed (barely missing her) and tumbles her onto the floor. The mystery in this novel begins when Fremont goes to her office to try to recover her typewriter and discovers several crates broken open in an adjacent room. They are filled with Japanese artifacts, which make her suspect that her landlords are involved in a smuggling operation. Unable to stay in her room or occupy her office, Fremont relocates to the tent city in Golden Gate Park, learns to operate an automobile, and makes herself useful driving for the Red Cross. Smuggling turns to murder as Fremont gets caught in the crossfire between the smugglers and the Japanese agents sent to recover the stolen treasures. In addition to a vivid description of the quake and the fires that followed it, this novel offers interesting visions of life in the Golden Gate Park tent city, the efforts of the Red Cross, the military, and others in the aftermath, and of the outdoor kitchens set up around the neighborhoods.


The Lost Gold of San Francisco (2003)Michael Castleman’s The Lost Gold of San Francisco (2003) is unique in the canon of earthquake novels—its plot provides a direct link between the Big One in 1906 with the “pretty big” one in 1989. The book begins with a fifty-page novella detailing events from April 17th to 20th, 1906. The San Francisco Mint is preparing to send a large shipment of misstruck $20 Double Eagle gold pieces to Denver to be melted down. In the chaos following the earthquake, the coins disappear en route to the Presidio. Only two of the gold pieces are ever found. The remainder of the novel is set in 1989. The wealthy publisher of the city’s leading newspaper is preparing to donate his coin collection to the California Museum. Included in the collection is one of the 1906 coins. When the museum’s founder then turns up dead, reporter Ed Rosenberg, who had been assigned to cover the story of the donation, turns his attention to the murder investigation—and becomes a target himself. Just as he reaches the end of the mystery, the Loma Prieta earthquake strikes, effectively solving Ed’s problem for him by causing the killer to have a too-close encounter with the front end of a BART train. This novel is filled with an incredible amount of historical detail—sometimes to the detriment of the narrative—in both the 1906 and 1989 sections. However, the central premise of the lost gold is fictional, albeit inspired by an item in the San Francisco Chronicle written by columnist Herb Caen in 1987: a laborer digging the foundation for a Financial District high-rise discovered a gold coin minted in 1849 by the Miner’s Bank of San Francisco. That story formed the basis of Castleman’s plot, although, in reality, the Mint never lost a single coin of the $2 million in gold that was held there in April 1906.


1906 (2004)Readers do not even have to open the cover of James Dalessandro’s 1906 (2004) to know that the earthquake and fire play a major role in this novel. If the title alone isn’t enough, the dust jacket features a photograph of a devastated San Francisco street with the burning Call Building in the foreground. Marketed with the tag line “Every disaster has a backstory,” Dalessandro’s tale is told by Annalisa Passarelli, a young reporter working as the theater and opera critic for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. Annalisa is looking forward to meeting the great tenor Enrico Caruso on his first visit to the city. She is also assisting Byron Fallon, Chief of Detectives of the San Francisco Police Department, to gather evidence of the graft and corruption of the city’s mayor, police chief, and political boss Adam Rolf (an obvious reference to the notorious “Boss” Abe Ruef). While crossing the Bay to deliver the evidence to the Graft Hunters, Byron is murdered, leaving it up to his sons Christian, a tough, brash police officer, and Hunter, a recent Stanford graduate who has new ideas about police work, along with a small group of honest cops known as the Brotherhood, to finish the job. As Annalisa and Hunter are trying to keep one step ahead of Rolf’s goons, led by Shanghai Kelly, they fall in love with each other and plan to marry as soon as the arrests are made on April 18th. The earthquake hits just as the Brotherhood is about to enter Rolf’s Nob Hill mansion. Rolf and his thugs use the ensuing chaos to turn the tables on their enemies and Annalisa and Hunter have to battle both the killers and the fire in order to save themselves and their city.


Locked Rooms (2005)Locked Rooms (2005) is the eighth book in Laurie R. King’s series (begun in 1994) about Mary Russell, wife and partner in crime-detection of Sherlock Holmes. This entry in the series takes place in 1924. Russell and Holmes are in San Francisco so that she can sell the Pacific Heights house that she inherited after her family’s death in an automobile crash ten years before. The backstory is that Russell’s father—who hailed from an old Boston family—and mother—who was British—had settled in San Francisco at the turn of the century and lived through the 1906 earthquake (although at the beginning of the novel Mary has repressed all of her memories of that time). Mary and her mother and younger brother then moved back to England for several years, where her father would occasionally visit them. The family returned to San Francisco in 1914 and just before her father was to leave to join the fighting in World War I, they were killed when their Maxwell plunged off of the highway on the Peninsula, leaving Mary as the only survivor. After several months of recovery—both physically and mentally—Mary returned to England for good, where she soon made the acquaintance of the world’s greatest detective and became his apprentice. Now Russell and Holmes are in San Francisco to officially cut all of her ties to the city. Shortly after their arrival, Mary is shot at by an unknown assailant, leading her and Holmes to begin investigating what secrets there could be about the long-shuttered house that someone would want to kill her to protect. The investigation leads back to the earthquake and its immediate aftermath. Something happened during that time that drastically changed her father’s relationships with his wife and with the family’s long-devoted gardener, a Chinese-American who lost his own Chinatown home to the fire. As Mary struggles with her childhood memories and ideals, Holmes takes a more pragmatic approach to the investigation, hiring a young, ex-Pinkerton agent/struggling writer named Dashiell Hammett to assist him in local inquiries. Hammett quickly uncovers evidence that the brakes to the Russell auto had been tampered with and that the “accident” was no accident—it was murder. Although all of the action in this novel takes place years after the earthquake, the solution to the murders eventually leads directly back to the chaotic days of April 1906, when extraordinary events caused ordinary people to commit drastic—and sometimes illegal and certainly immoral—actions.

Additional Titles

The Lion’s Share by Octave Thanet (1907) [Summary]
   [Although this book appeared before Travers (in October 1907), the earthquake occurs at the very end of the novel
   and does not figure significantly in the plot.]

Thunderbolt House by Howard Pease (1944) [Summary]
The Trembling Hills by Phyllis A. Whitney (1956)
The Reckoning by Patrick McInroy (1995)
PaperQuake by Kathryn Reiss (1998)
Swindled!: The Journal of Fitz Morgan by Bill Doyle (2006) [Summary]
Bones of the Barbary Coast by Daniel Hecht (2006)
The Last Nightingale by Anthony Flacco (2007) [Summary]

Introduction | Methodology | Contributors | References | Extras

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

Home | New Additions