Peter Maravelis, Editor

"San Francisco Noir 2: The Classics"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage MAR 7, 2009)

“There are more things in San Francisco’s Chinatown than are dreamed of in Heaven and earth. In reality there are three parts of Chinatown—the part the guides show you, the part the guides don’t show you, and the part that no one ever hears of. It is with the latter part that this story has to do. There are a good many stories that might be written about this third circle of Chinatown, but believe me, they never will be written—at any rate not until the “town” has been, as it were, drained off from the city, as one might drain a noisome swamp, and we shall be able to see the strange, dreadful life that wallows down there in the lowest ooze of the place—wallows and grovel there in the mud and the dark”

San Francisco Noir 2 by Peter Maravelis

Dark Passage, Sudden Fear, and The Maltese Falcon are all noir films set in San Francisco, and if you’ve seen these marvelous classic noir titles, you will recall how this unique city with its easily identifiable landscapes adds to the atmosphere of the films. While these films could have been set in a thousand other cities, the fact that they were set in San Francisco serves to enhance the urban nightmares within their stories. Whether it’s Vincent Parry desperately escaping from San Quentin, Myra Hudson running down deserted San Francisco streets as she attempts to evade her maniacal husband, or the laconic Sam Spade walking through the fog, for noir fans these names and these scenes conjure the very essence of San Francisco--a city built for noir. And this brings me to Akashic Books and San Francisco Noir 2--one in a series of noir collections that pay homage to the cities that lend themselves to the genre. San Francisco Noir 2 includes some classic noir tales, some modern stories, and a few that technically pre-date noir, but that still have the noir flavor of the genre. The book’s introduction by Peter Marvelis provides a brief history of San Francisco and an overview of the genre.

The book is divided into four sections with 17 stories total. The first section, Barbarous Coast (a play on the term "Barbary Coast") is composed of stories from Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, Mark Twain and Jack London. The three other sections are Shadows in the Fog, The Isle of Broken Dreams and Desolation Angels. There are names here you will recognize (Dashiell Hammett, for example) and names that may be new to you. Stories from Marcia Muller and Janet Dawson prove that noir is not exclusively male territory (fans of Megan Abbott, dubbed Queenpin by Noir Czar Eddie Muller already appreciate the fact that the female can be deadlier than the male). One story, The Collector Comes After Payday (one of my favorites) is written by Fletcher Flora, a writer whose stories appeared in Dime Detective and who also was a ghost writer for a couple of Ellery Queen novels.

Each story focuses on a different area within San Francisco--Chinatown, Market Street, Nob Hill, and Union Square, and the city always figures into the story--sometimes in rather sinister ways as in Norris’s The Third Circle, originally published in 1897. Norris’s story is particularly enjoyable, even though it does cater to the very worst notions of white women seduced by both Opium and the wily Chinese men who provide it. After all, we know that in reality it was the British who forced Opium down the Chinese throats and not the other way around, but Norris’s 1897 story is a relic of those archaic, racist fears. The biggest problem I have with Chinatown these days isn’t Opium but the fact that shops and restaurant put turtles on the menu. But that’s another story.

At the other end of the spectrum is Craig Clevenger’s 2009 story The Numbers Game, and this author’s machine gun style and use of language show just how much things have changed but how crime, corruption and noir remain timeless. For the noir fan this book is a feast to be savored slowly, and while it’s not necessary to be familiar with San Francisco to enjoy this book, knowing and loving this city definitely adds to the enjoyment.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews

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About the Author:

Peter Maravelis is a native San Franciscan with a life-long involvement in the art and literary scenes. He programs the events calendar at City Lights Bookstore and was editor of the first volume of San Francisco Noir. He's been known to occasionally moonlight with PIs. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014