Tag Archives: San Francisco

Setting Dilemma (plus a New Release)

by Vinnie Hansen

Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller were my gateway drugs into mystery addiction. I had a slight preference for Grafton’s series except for one aspect. Sue Grafton set her stories in Santa Teresa, a thinly disguised Santa Barbara, while Marcia Muller, at least initially, set her tales of murder and mayhem in a real San Francisco.

When I started the two series, I lived in San Francisco, and Muller’s PI, Sharon McCone, resided on the street parallel to the house I rented with friends. I loved to imagine her backyard abutted mine. When I looked out my upstairs bedroom window, I viewed Bernal Heights and adored the idea that McCone worked in a law office right over there.

Bernal Heights (photo by Timothy Vollmer, CC-BY 2.0, Wikimedia Coomons)

Bernal Heights in San Francisco (photo by Timothy Vollmer, CC-BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

I couldn’t understand why Grafton had relinquished this charm. Everyone figured out Santa Teresa was Santa Barbara anyway.

So when I began my own mystery series, I decided to place it in a real Santa Cruz, which had definite appeal to my local fans. People have purchased my books simply because particular haunts were mentioned.

However, I created a fictional restaurant for my protagonist Carol Sabala’s work place, and site of the first murder in the series. I also made Carol different from myself, taller, younger, half Mexican-American, and a California native with a small family. Carol was a baker with PI ambitions, while I was a teacher.

In One Tough Cookie, my second mystery, I didn’t want another person to die at the restaurant, so I transported Carol to Watsonville High School, my actual place of employment. Since this was a public institution rather than a private business, I decided not to give it a fictitious name. With twenty-twenty hindsight, I would never recommend this choice to anyone!

Vinnie posing on the Watsonville High School sign

A younger me at Watsonville High

Even though the characters were fictional, at minimum amalgams of many people, my colleagues identified them as this person or that. This tendency of theirs filled me with anxiety since many of the characters behaved badly.

Of course, local readers probably would have formed these opinions even if I’d given the high school a different name. Since I worked at Watsonville High, they would have ID’d any school as Watsonville High just as everyone knows Santa Teresa is Santa Barbara. And they would have speculated on which characters represented which colleagues, just as readers who know me imagine Carol Sabala as me, even with her long hair and questionable actions.

That’s why, with the rewrite and re-release of One Tough Cookie, I decided not to give Watsonville High School a fictitious name. Also, I’ve been retired for five years now, and a fresh team of educators occupies the school. I don’t think readers will make the same associations they did before. (At least I hope they don’t.)

And the real location may work some magic, the way Muller’s San Francisco captivated me.

Readers, do you enjoy stories set in real places you’re familiar with, in which you can recognize streets and favorite haunts? Writers, how do you feel about using real vs. fictitious settings in your stories?

Drum roll, please!! Here is the new release (under the misterio press imprint) of…

One Tough Cookie, A Carol Sabala Mystery

Carol Sabala’s boss sends the baker and amateur sleuth on a mission: find out who tampered with a teacher’s cookie dough and sickened the faculty. While Carol hones her investigative skills by gathering clues on the campus, a student is found dead on the high school’s stage. Did she fall? Commit suicide? Or did a killer hurl her from the catwalk?

When Carol seeks answers, a ruthless stalker comes after her!

Now Available on AMAZON and SMASHWORDS


Posted by Vinnie Hansen. Vinnie fled the South Dakota prairie for the California coast the day after graduating high school. She is the author of the Carol Sabala mysteries and was a Claymore Award finalist for Black Beans & Venom, the seventh and latest installment in that series. She’s also written many published short stories. Retired after 27 years of teaching English at Watsonville High School, Vinnie lives in Santa Cruz with her husband, abstract artist Daniel S. Friedman.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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How Sam Spade Came to Be Hard-Boiled, Part 1

Cover of Black Mask magazine featuring the Maltese Falcon

Hi, K.B. Owen here, to talk about the “hard-boiled” detective story subgenre and one of my favorite examples of that style, The Maltese Falcon. (Yes, I’m fully embracing the irony of a cozy mystery writer discussing such a rough-and tumble fictional world. If you really want your mind blown, check out my hard-boiled short-short fiction piece a few months ago on Laird Sapir’s blog). 

This will be in two parts: today, I’ll talk about the genre in general and some background on Sam Spade’s world; next Tuesday, I’ll talk about how Dashiell Hammett’s background (hint: he wrote what he knew) came to be linked so closely with his creation, and the reaction to the novel’s publication.  I hope you can join me for both parts!

What is hard-boiled?
What we call “hard-boiled” (a term first coined by Raymond Chandler) is crime fiction that’s characterized by a hard-drinking, cynical private eye with his own moral code, a sexy dame with lies even longer than her legs, and an emphasis on action over contemplative deduction. Although the detective-hero is street-smart and savvy in the ways of the criminal underworld, he solves the case more with his fists than by sitting in a corner, smoking shag tobacco and thinking over the puzzle.

Some folks consider hard-boiled and noir interchangeable terms, but critic Otto Penzler gives a great explanation of why this isn’t the case: Noir Fiction is About Losers, Not Private Eyes.

Only in America
The hard-boiled subgenre is a uniquely American creation, arising from the frontier heroes, larger-than-life loners, scoundrels and criminals of U.S. history.

American literary tastes of the early 20th century had been conditioned by the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper. The hero, Natty Bumppo (I kid you not), had moral virtue and fantastic visual powers by which he could read broken twigs and faint footprints to seek out the enemy.  Rather than society’s rules, he followed his own code of ethics.

American readers were interested in frontier adventure tales, stories with a romantic interest, and those with a residual sense of the “eye for an eye” justice of their Puritan forefathers. They avidly read stories serialized in magazines – in 1922 alone there were over 20,000 magazines published – and the magazine detective story format was emerging as a very popular medium. The enormous following of the late 19th century dime/pulps (even though the stories were rather primitive) also encouraged publishers of the early 20th century to promote this sort of fiction.

A Classic Example: The Maltese Falcon (1930), by Dashiell Hammett

poster fior the 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon
Of course, many of us are familiar with the 1941 film, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. But there’s much more to the story than what we see in the film version.

Since the novel is set in 1920’s San Francisco, let me give you a little background about that time and place:

San Francisco was the metropolis of the West – a focal point of immigration, mining, industry, and export.

After the passage of the Volstead Act (otherwise known as Prohibition), the city became a major port of entry for illegal liquor. Speakeasies paid off local authorities in free liquor; networks of rum-runners stretched inland; and houses of prostitution flourished. Apparently many San Franciscans considered Prohibition an incentive to commerce.

The Bay area during this time attracted German, Italian and Chinese immigrants. In fact, an entire Chinese society, complete with criminal gangs, holy men and a social hierarchy, developed in a twenty-square-block area of downtown SF.

In terms of law enforcement, corruption abounded. Many of the cops, D.A.s, and city officials were either on the take or looking to advance themselves by whatever means necessary. This mindset is a prominent part of the world of The Maltese Falcon. Private eye Sam Spade doesn’t dare trust anyone but himself in such a world.

Next week, we’ll talk about Hammett the author, and how The Maltese Falcon was received at the time.

Are you a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction?  Have you seen the Bogart film?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,

Posted by Kathy Owen (aka K.B. Owen). Kathy is a recovering former English professor with a PhD in 19th century British literature, and the author of Dangerous and Unseemly, A Concordia Wells Mystery. She is currently raising three boys and working on Books 2 and 3 in the Concordia Wells mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not harvest, lend, sell or otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses.)