My recent post, A Visual History of San Francisco, was all about the buildings. A recent visit to Fort Point reminded me that the city's history is more a product of its natural setting than its architecture. Seen from Fort Point, the city appears miniature compared to the bay that surrounds it, even though this photo shows only a small part of the bay.
Fort Point stands at the southern side of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Spanish explorers called this entrance "la buca," the mouth.
In 1846, an early settler, John C. Fremont, decided to call it the Golden Gate because it reminded him of the Golden Horn at the harbor of Byzantium. That name proved prophetic when gold was discovered two years later, touching off the Gold Rush.
The U. S. Army built Fort Point on this spot for the same reason the Spanish built a presidio here in 1776. Aim a few cannons at la buca, and you control the harbor and defend the city.
That fort, completed in 1861, still stands. It is now beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1937.
I haven't read all of Jim Thompson's novels. Once I had read those recommended as his best, I stopped keeping a list titles. But when I saw this one in a bookstore, I grabbed it on a whim. I'm glad I did.
Mitch Corley, the hero of Texas by the Tail, is more relatable than many of Thompson's main characters. He's not a psychopath like Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me; he isn't an assassin like Charley Bigger in Savage Night; he isn't a thief and murderer like Doc McCoy in The Getaway.
Mitch Corley is a professional gambler who knows how to make the dice do what he wants and is always happy to separate a fool from his money. Like several of Thompson's other heroes, he's trying to make a good life for himself and the woman he loves, despite his flaws.
What makes Texas by the Tail so surprising and satisfying is the narrative voice. "Texas" is not narrated in the first person as are the Thompson novels critics like best, Also, this omniscient narrator is more authoritative than those of After Dark My Sweet, and The Grifters, for instance,
In "Texas," the narrator occasionally takes a paragraph or two to describe the social character of the places where the action is set, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. He also editorializes on Mitch's dubious assumptions and decisions. The reader feels the author hovering over the action more than in other novels by Thompson.
Probably this is because "Texas" was written late in Thompson's career, 1965, when he had been writing for film and television for several years. His most productive years as a novelist, 1952 to 1955, were behind him. It is as if he returns to the novel, feeling free of the requirements of the paperback originals he had turned out at an astonishing rate (twelve books in three years).
Texas by the Tail reads more like a mainstream novel than those earlier books, though the dread of watching the hero make his way in a corrupt world is just as profound. This probably shouldn't be a reader's first novel by Thompson, but it is not to be missed.
The sign for AMC Theatres will soon be gone from this grand old building on Van Ness Avenue. A few years ago AMC took over the Sundance Cinema six blocks away and we had to wonder how long they would compete with themselves.
Years before that, AMC turned this four-story building into an eighteen-screen mutiplex. We've ridden up and down the escalators many times and watched many movies here. And we may see more. Word has it another company will re-open the theaters under its name.
One sign will not be leaving the building. In the stone over that fancy entrance is carved the word "Cadillac." It may seem strange now, but this was originally an auto dealership.
Back when cars were new, Van Ness Avenue was home to many dealerships. Quite a few still operate there. As I took this photo, I stood in front of a Land Rover/Jaguar dealer in an art deco building. No sign of its original brand.
Around the corner from "Cadillac" is a building of similar vintage, though not as large. Over its door is carved the word "Packard."
I walked by this place on my way to Blackbird Guitars in the Mission district. I'd never heard of Whiz Burgers even though they've been around "Since 1955," as the sign says (too small to read in this photo). I assume the name was meant to suggest how fast they could deliver food.
Growing up in Ohio, I saw plenty of hamburger stands of all brands built in this style: a shed roof over one big room with a glass front. Mostly I saw them near strip malls with big parking lots in front.
I never expected to see one shoe-horned into a corner lot in a densely packed urban neighborhood. Other street corners in the area have restaurants built into corner retail spaces beneath apartments.
I guess back in 1955, the city let developers level a corner lot to build their standard model hamburger stand. Somehow, I don't think they would today.
Whiz Burgers is still whizzing along. As you can see, there was a customer at the window when I took the picture, and later folks were sitting out at the picnic tables.
My friend, Liz, and I visited Blackbird Guitars in the Mission District. This factory, about the size of a typical auto body shop, builds acoustic guitars and ukuleles using sheets of linen fiber strengthened with resin.
Blackbird says their product is sustainable because it doesn’t require harvesting hardwoods like mahogany and rosewood, which come from rainforests. True enough: flax, the source of linen fibers, is a part of traditional agricultural.
We gave their guitars and ukes a good workout, and they are very fine instruments. For all the romance about traditional wood construction, there is no reason good-sounding instruments cannot be made from other materials.
Playing guitar remains an important part of my writing life. After pounding out as many pages as I can, I play a few tunes. When I sit down to write again, it seems as if my brain has organized the words that come next.
It’s not unusual for authors to write in sprints, alternating with some activity to refresh the mind. Some take walks. I know one writer who plays pool. Patricia Highsmith writes about how important naps are for a writer. “I go to sleep with the problem and wake up with the answer.”
I sometimes take naps or go for walks, but focusing my brain and my fingers on rhythm, melody, and harmony seems to have an equally clarifying effect.
,Market Street in San Francisco starts at the Ferry Building and runs southwest in a straight line all the way to Castro Street. Streets on the north side of Market run north-south and east- west. This creates lots of pointy street corners.
Architects usually design pointy buildings, "flatiron buildings," for these corners. This new one is at 15th and Market. Apart from its sleek, contemporary styling, there's nothing unusual about it except . . .
. . . the architects have given the corner rooms big windows that go all the way to the point. This gives the apartment-dweller a living room (presumably) with wrap-around daylight and nowhere to hide. They must have curtains that can travel from the solid walls out to the point to give privacy after dark. But for daytime, these flats are see-through.
I volunteered to staff the table for the Mechanics' Institute Library at The San Francisco Writers' Conference this weekend. It was fun. Along with telling conference-goers about the library, I got to chat with them about their writing and mine.
Being there had an extra resonance for me. The SFWC was the first writers' conference I attended after retiring from academic life and starting to write mysteries.
It is a supermarket-style conference, covering everything from poetry to genre fiction, with journalism, and literary fiction along the way. It offers everything from how-to-write sessions to how-to-promote consultations. I got a good sense of what was going in the world of writers.
At SFWC, I met and talked with a fellow writer about my wish to join a writers' group. That writer told me the Mechanics Institute Library hosts groups for writers.
Four years later the Mechanics' has become my literary home. I've been in a mystery writers' group for three-and-a-half years, and have participated in many other writerly activities, including Writers' Lunch, every third Friday.
Representing the Mechanics' at SFWC reminded me of something I heard recently from fellow writer Ethel Rohan. Writers must be in community with other writers. One must be a good literary citizen. Hear, hear!
I became aware of Gillian Flynn when most people did: when Gone Girl, the movie, hit theaters in 2014. The book was published in 2012. Like everyone else, I thrilled to the reversal in the plot of Gone Girl, but there was something else about it that attracted me.
At a writers’ conference, I heard an author of cozy mysteries remark that there is not a single likable character in Gone Girl. It’s true. Flynn wrote a book almost everyone likes without including a character anyone can like.
I was reminded of that author’s remark a few years later In a meeting of a book club for crime fiction. We were discussing The Kill-Off by Jim Thompson, and one reader said, “It’s a book about awful people.”
True enough: Thompson introduces us to bad guys, usually in the first person. So does Patricia Highsmith, most famously in The Talented Mister Ripley. As a friend remarked of that movie, “It’s a little too dark for me.”
But not for me. I’m reading Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, and enjoying it. The main character, Libby Day, survived a horrific experience as a child. It did not make her a better person---far from it---and the people she meets are creepy.
I like books and movies full of “awful people.” In addition to stories by Flynn, Highsmith, and Thompson, I like stories by Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. Other people must like them too. All these authors achieved popularity, fame and fortune in their lifetimes.
Of these authors, Flynn is the only one still alive. There must be others currently writing in this vein. Can you suggest any?
Private-eye novels, police procedurals, legal thrillers , , , all the stories about professional crime solvers, be they sheriffs or FBI agents or forensic scientists, are great.
But I have a special fondness for stories about crime solved by someone who has some other kind of job. I like amateur-sleuth mysteries, and that's what I write.
As the title suggests, Thomas Perry's latest is an example of the old saying, "It takes a thief to catch a thief." When Elle sneaks into a house looking for jewelry, she finds bodies.
From there on, Perry carefully gives Elle reasons to help the police solve the murders without of course identifying herself and revealing why she was in the house.
Along the way, the reader learns a lot about the craft of burglary. This is typical of amateur-sleuth mysteries. They take you into a world you probably don't live in.
One can't help wondering how Perry knows so much about burglary. I'm sure he did his research, though I'd like to know how. Did he go to a prison and interview burglars?
The Burglar is written with Perry's usual impeccable craft. I've enjoyed his books since the 1990s, when he was writing the series featuring Jane Whitefield, who helps people disappear. Since then he's been writing these stand-alones. He's always a good read.
By the way, Alfred Hitchcock had little interest in professional investigators. Police usually turn up on the fringes of his stories, if at all. Somehow it's more thrilling when an executive, a photographer, a doctor or some other civilian has to confront a crime. Or an art historian.
This view of San Francisco reveals a lot about its history. The large domed building in the upper left corner is the Palace of Fine Arts, a pavilion left over from a world's fair the city hosted in 1915. That event was crucial to the city's recovery from the earthquake and fire of 1906 that nearly wiped it off the map.
The cluster of tall buildings to the right of the Palace is the Financial District, As soon as San Francisco become a city due to the Gold Rush of 1849, it became a banking capitol, the "Wall Street of the West." As banking grew through the 20th century, the buildings grew taller. You can see the pointy building known as the Transamerica Pyramid.
The cluster of tall buildings further right went up mostly in the last five years. They represent the explosion of the tech industry in the last twenty years. The tallest of them, and the tallest in the city, is the Salesforce Tower.
Across the middle of the picture, the low buildings with red roofs are part of the Presidio, which was a U. S. Army base from the time of the Civil War until 1994. Before that it was base for the army of Mexico when California was its territory. And before that it was the Spanish El Presidio de San Francisco, established coincidentally in 1776. Now it is a national park.
The railing seen across the bottom of the picture is part of one of the newest structures in the city. It's on a bridge spanning the highway below. A section of that highway has been covered with tunnels. Soon we will be able to walk over them from the Main Post of the Presidio down to the park along the Bay.
So I think it's fair to say, until the bridge was completed last year, no one had ever seen this view of the city.
I admit: I'm not much of a sports fan. I enjoy going to a few Giants games with my wife each season. Recently I tagged along when The San Francisco Chronicle hosted an evening with three of its sports writers.
Susan Slusser is the beat writer for the Oaland A's and also writes about hockey. In 2012 she became the only woman to be elected president of the Baseball Writers Association of America in its 111-year history.
Al Saracevic is the Chronicle's sports editor and he writes a weekly column in the sports section. In the past, he has covered major stories in business such as the dot-com bust of 2000 and the recent financial crisis.
Henry Schulman has covered the San Francisco Giants since 1988. He has seen it all: the "Earthquake World Series" in 1989, the era of Barry Bonds, and the World Series championships of 2010, 2012, and 2014.
The hundred-or-so baseball fans gathered to hear this trio were a wonky bunch. Most of the questions about trades, free agents, and contracts were over my head, but I could feel the energy in the room as the writers geeked out for the crowd.
I also learned some lessons about writing. Saracevic said with pride that the Chronicle does not run formulaic reports such as, "The Giants won in the ___ inning when ___ hit a home run with __ men on base."
Slusser and Schulman recalled with joy interviewing players, teasing out the story behind the game, and writing in real time as the innings go by.
And then there was this: Schulman said the story is written from the bottom up. Intuitively I get that. You write down the thing that amazes you about the event, and then you lead the reader to discover it.
But I wish I'd had time to geek out with Schulman about how he does it.
Waltz into Darkness illustrates what is best about Cornell Woolrich's fiction and what is . . . challenging.
Most importantly, the plot and characters are first-rate. A man and woman have decided to marry after exchanging letters over several months. We are left to infer such things were common in New Orleans in the late 1800s.
When the couple meet for the wedding, there is some uneasiness as each discovers that the other has---shall we say---de-emphasized certain facts. Who's playing whom?
The groom is a traditional sort of guy. His manners are old-school, and he wants nothing more than to make his new wife happy. The bride is . . . not all she seems to be.
I'd love to tell you about all the surprising things in the book, but I don't want to spoil it for you. So I'll just say, Woolrich pulls off one of the most startling plot reversals I've ever read. Characterwise, he gives us a portrait of an amoral psychopath worthy of Jim Thompson or Patricia Highsmith.
What's challenging is the author's occasional indulgence in painting pictures with words, striving for lyrical effects, and extended meditations. This purple prose crops up here and there throughout the book.
Fortunately, the scenes in which the characters move the plot forward are written with the clarity typical of his excellent short stories. You just have to do a little skimming.
Underworld U. S. A., (1961), written and directed by Samuel Fuller, treats the subject of organized crime with a complexity and sophistication that rivals Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972).
As a teenager, Tolly Devlin sees his father beaten to death in an alley by four men. Grown to manhood, he vows to find them and take revenge.
I’ll admit I expected the movie from here on to be repetitive: find one, gun him down, move on to the next. But Fuller accomplishes much more.
The process of finding each man becomes a psychological chess-game as he trades information to get the names of the murderers who are only shadowy figures in his memory.
Finding them exposes a criminal organization disguised as a legitimate business that supports benevolent social programs.
The process of killing each man involves uneasy partnerships with law enforcement
There is no romance about extended Italian families in this movie. Fuller’s take-down of organized crime is unsentimental. This movie reminds readers of Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, that he spent his early years as a crime reporter for a daily newspaper in New York.
It was a special pleasure to see Underworld U. S. A. in the Castro Theater, as part of the Noir City festival.
Fans of murder mysteries follow an unwritten code: don't give away the ending! Don't even talk about which clue is crucial or which suspects are red herrings.
We do this for the obvious reason that telling someone whodunnit makes the book less suspenseful for them. In many years of reading and chatting about these books, I've never heard anyone do this, and I hope I never do.
I wish I could talk about certain things my sleuth discovers because I think they might attract some readers, and, equally important, they might let other readers know the books are not for them.
Since this is just between you and me, I will say parts of my plots could have been ripped from the headlines. Oddly enough I did not have this in mind while I wrote them. Rather the headlines caught up with me.
I might also mention that a well-known publisher recently announced they will launch a new line of mysteries. Good for them! They also put out a list of requirements for authors wishing to submit: length, restrictions on sex and violence, etc. Again, good for them.
One of their requirements made me decide not to submit to them. They say it's alright to include characters who belong to racial minorities or who are gay so long as their identities do not create problems for them.
I do include such characters, but I am unable to imagine a world in which it doesn't matter if you're gay, or black, or Asian, etc. In my books, it matters.
If you don't want to read about such a world, please enjoy any of the thousands of other mysteries that share this publisher's world view. If want to see the world as I do, please check out my books on Amazon.