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Spade Work 

Putting the lessons of Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco life and art to practical use

Wednesday, Nov 28 2001
"It's like this, see: We each pick a mark, someone ankling by the box or nibblin' on one," says Secret Agent X-9, casting an eye around John's Grill. "Then, we tail 'em for a couple of hours, see?"

Translation: "We choose a person walking by the bar or having a drink and we follow them for a while."

Secret Agent X-9 -- a slender, 32-year-old tailor from Madison, Wis. -- adjusts his fedora and squares his shoulders. It doesn't help.

"If you catch a live one, and you can't make it to the St. Francis by 8, get on the blower," says X-9, distributing his cell phone number on discreet, russet-colored cards. "Remember, be inconspicuous and stick with your mark. (Unless they catch you; then, you know, find someone else. You don't want to go to jail or spook anyone.) Then report back. We'll swap tales over stiff hookers of bourbon.

"OK, let's go!" Thus begins Sam Spade Lesson No. 1: The Shadow, an interactive "game" meant to satisfy the post-Prohibition sleuth in all of us.

The six would-be private eyes giggle like schoolgirls, taking daisy sips off their drinks, hoping someone else will work up enough balls to leave the table. A nice-looking dame two tables over checks her watch and pulls on a long red coat that matches her war paint. Taking the unspoken invitation, "Miles Archer," a short man with freckles who chose the alias of Sam Spade's partner in The Maltese Falcon, counts to 10 and slips out the door behind her. "Amelia Peabody," a longtime friend of X-9 who helped gather people for this game, also slips out the door, falling behind some old guy who caught her fancy. Not one to be outdone by a woman who reads Elizabeth Peters mystery novels, I dust John's Grill, one-time home-away-from-home of hard-boiled detective master Dashiell Hammett, and plunge into the holiday crowd on Ellis Street.

A twist, wearing white go-go boots and a plastic raincoat covered in little yellow ducks, catches my attention. "A pushover for sure," I think, "good for a laugh." I wait a couple of heartbeats, then start after her, walking toward Powell Street. I try to remember the four cardinal rules of shadowing offered by the Continental Op in one of Hammett's early short stories: 1) Stay behind the suspect; 2) Don't attempt to hide; 3) Act naturally, no matter what; 4) Never meet the suspect's eye.

Little Ducks makes for Urban Outfitters -- not my preferred digs, but I'm on the job. She takes her sweet time looking over a wall of Christmas lights, the kind done up with plastic chilies and Chinese lanterns. I make like I'm really interested in fancy shower curtains. She buys a box, then heads over to Blondie's for a slice. She eats inside, standing up with her packages delicately balanced between her feet, staring out at the cable cars with her high cheekbones and expressionless eyes. A good gumshoe never gets close enough to know his suspect's features, but I'm not very good. When Little Ducks steps out of the pizza joint she glances over her shoulder, and I feel my heart skip a beat. I toss some coins into an open guitar case and act casual, waiting for her to cross Market Street. In the San Francisco Shopping Centre is where I notice Little Ducks' "tell." Something about spending money doesn't sit too well with her. Waiting in lines for the register is too much; she twirls pieces of her hair like a taffy machine on the blink; even if her hands are full, her fingers find a way to pluck and pull at that hair. I wonder if she's passing "orphan paper" or just cashing in her rent money for sweet-smelling bath salts. Either way, she's goofy, and I know it. Near Nordstrom, Little Ducks meets up with two friends -- Japanese hipsters with arms full of neat, colorful packages. I'm careful to stay at least one escalator behind them, keeping an eye on the chippy from across the mezzanine, but when they head over to the Metreon and get in line for a movie, I call it quits.

At the St. Francis Hotel, Secret Agent X-9 and Amelia Peabody are nursing drinks, waiting for the other ops to arrive.

"Mine took me shopping," I say with a grunt.

"Mine, too," says X-9. "They can't all be exciting. That's the first rule."

One of our crew, calling himself "Ned Beaumont" after the shady antihero in Hammett's The Glass Key, slides into a chair next to me.

"I cased a bum who found 20 bucks on the sidewalk," says Beaumont, trying to maintain his cool. "I followed him up through the Tenderloin and watched him buy a jug of wine. He shared it with his old lady in that little park, but he lied about the money. And after the bottle was gone, they got into a fight. Fucking pulling hair and spittin'. It was great!"

"I got fingered," says Miles Archer. "That woman from John's met up with her husband or boyfriend or whatever and pointed me out. I just kept walking, and the guy didn't follow me or anything, but ... I guess I wasn't too careful. Maybe it was the hat."

"I watched that old guy buy a lady's fur coat for a Christmas present," says Peabody. "Then he went down to the Gold Rush and drank like 20 scotch and sodas."

"I never left John's," says a woman calling herself "Nora Charles" from Hammett's popular Thin Man series. "My "suspect' never left either. I just watched him drinking while I sat there drinking. It was a fine piece of detective work. Nick and Nora would have been proud.

"Why are we sitting in this place anyway?" asks Mrs. Charles. "It's a little rich, even for my blood."

According to The Dashiell Hammett Tour, a guidebook written by local author Don Herron, the luxurious St. Francis lobby is most likely the one through which Miles Archer shadowed Brigid O'Shaughnessy before she did him in on Burritt Street. A bronze plaque hangs in the Burritt alleyway, denoting the fictitious murder by the double-talking dame. It's the 17th stop on Herron's tour, which, at 25 years old, is easily the longest-running literary walking tour in the country.

On any given Sunday at noon, Herron waits for Hammett fans and Sam Spade groupies at the northwest corner of the Main Library. Now, looking more like the portly, balding Operational Op than the wiry mug with the thin mustache pictured in his youth, Herron is, nonetheless, a formidable character who is most comfortable in a broken-down fedora, loose tie, and open trench coat. He waves but he does not smile.

"I thought about calling it quits after 25 years," says Herron, "but my divorce settlement requires that I stay in the area until my son turns 18. So I'll keep it going until the tour hits 30. Besides, Miles Archer gave his life for tourism."

Over the years, Herron has guided hundreds, if not thousands, of people through the back alleys of San Francisco, following the seedy trails left by both Dashiell Hammett and his fictional characters. Herron helped found the Maltese Falcon Society and became acquainted with Jo Hammett, the daughter of the bindlestiff author; when Lawrence Ferlinghetti was choosing a lane to rename Dashiell Hammett, he took Herron's advice and chose Monroe Street over Burritt so as not to encourage a Disney-like atmosphere at the "murder" site. When the original Maltese Falcon (movie prop) went on the auction block, Herron pitched in some cash so that John's Grill might try to bring the bird "home." Of course, some mysterious man in a trench coat outbid everyone, and the famed trophy once again went into hiding, a fact that Herron relates with a practiced grimace.

"In the end, the prop was worth as much as the bird in the story," Herron says, leading us to 580 McAllister, an apartment building where the Continental Op corners the jewel thief, Ines Almad, in "The Whosis Kid," a short story from 1925 that foreshadowed The Maltese Falcon and drew on Hammett's real-life detective work for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

"He answered an ad that read, "Orphans preferred,'" says Herron, who glibly explains that Hammett was a self-made man with a ninth-grade education who borrowed books from the library and took work where he could. "During World War I, though, he caught TB. He met a woman in a hospital in Spokane. He seemed to recover and went back to work for Pinkerton. He and the nurse were married."

"But Hammett was a lunger," Herron continues, leading us to 620 Eddy, the one-time home of the newlyweds. "He had to keep a separate apartment so that he didn't infect his wife and daughter." More than likely, though, 891 Post suited Hammett's solitary temperament and Spade's eventual emergence. In the apartment, now residence of a Spade-obsessed fan named Bill the Hat, one can imagine Spade pushing Brigid O'Shaughnessy past the Murphy bed, into the bathroom to strip down and satisfy his suspicions that she hasn't pocketed his cash.

"The Continental Op ate dinner here in The Dain Curse," says Herron, conjuring his favorite character and pointing to the fading letters painted across a large red-brick building on Olive Street. From the O'Farrell side of the building, Blanco's can be recognized as the flashy Great American Music Hall, but, from here, it's a perfect noir setting for a shootout, complete with fire escapes, dark doorways, and steam.

"It's a wonder they still haven't painted over it," says Herron. "When I started this tour, the B in Blanco's still looked like a B; now, it looks like an H, but I'm glad it's still here."

"Sam Spade was the kind of detective people liked to imagine themselves as, but the Continental Op was like a real detective. He was shifty and unattractive and emotionally battered. When he was crushed, he didn't whine, he just got up again and filed it away."

For info on the Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, call (510) 287-9540.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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