May 10, 2014

The City In Genre Books

by Jeremy Lassen

(Editor's note: since Alan is still busy doing construction -- hey, the basement has a FLOOR now! -- I've asked some other staffers to contribute From the Office pieces for the next few months. Don't worry; all the rest of us are just as opinionated as Alan, and he'll be back with his own special brand of analysis in a few months. But meanwhile, enjoy another guest piece from Jeremy Lassen, Borderlands' first (and longest continuous) employee. (Please note that while Borderlands is probably the only bookstore in the world with its own SWAT team, and that Alan and I will personally back any of our employees in a street fight, their opinions are their own and don't necessarily represent the store. - Jude Feldman)

Genre fiction often uses setting as a major character. This is an obvious statement in regards to fantasy fiction (Middle Earth is probably the best realized 'character' in Tolkien's work,) but the science fiction, horror and mystery genres also feature setting-driven work.

The reasons these settings-as-characters appeal to readers are as diverse as the number of readers out there, but there are some broad categories of reasons: sometimes it's the excitement of seeing someplace completely exotic. Other times is the comfort of seeing your very own streets lovingly and accurately depicted, and other times, it's the frisson of seeing something you know intimately presented with just a few minor tweaks and changes. This month I wanted to keep things kind of close to home and talk about some of my favorite books that use San Francisco as a setting.
One of my favorite novels set in San Francisco is the horror classic Our Lady Of Darkness by Fritz Leiber. It's a novel-length examination of the "modern" horror sensibilities that he pioneered in his short works like "The Smoke Ghost" and "The Hound." It mixes actual history and historic figures with a purely fictional account of some supernatural goings-on. That, combined with its sometimes painfully autobiographical nature make it one of San Francisco's best appearances in fiction. From the Tenderloin slums to the rocky outcropping of Corona Heights, it's a regular travelog of 1970's-era San Francisco. I first knew San Francisco through this novel, and when I moved here, I made a pilgrimage to Corona Heights, and later, I eventually found my way to the tenement at 811 Geary Street. Some people go for the mystery side of the house, and seek out Hammett. Some are attracted to the Beat writers' haunts. But for me, the first glimmerings of my love affair with San Francisco began with Our Lady of Darkness.

Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon is one of the classic, old school, City-as-major-character novels, and it's certainly worth a look if you've never read it. But I'm a fan of its lesser known sibling, The Dain Curse, which also features a pretty endearing snapshot of pre-WWII San Francisco. Since San Francisco has its own legendary Hammett expert in Don Herron, I'll suggest you check out his guidebook The Dashiell Hammett Tour, or pursue his website where he has a wealth of information (more on this later):

Staying in the mystery vein for a moment, I wanted to mention that legendary California crime writer Kem Nunn has a new novel called Chance, set in The City. It's part Sons of Anarchy, part Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco, featuring corrupt cops in Oakland, and a doctor who gets involved in trying to help a damsel in distress, and lots of bad people doing bad things. I really loved this one, and hope it ends up being the beginning of a long-running series.

Going back in time a bit, I have a soft spot for Oakly Hall's historical crime novels, featuring Ambrose Bierce. The first was Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades, in 1998, and the last was . . . And the Ace of Shoots, from 2005, with 3 other novels in between. Imagine a bitter, sarcastic Sherlock Holmes living in pre-quake San Francisco. That's a rough sketch of Hall's vision of Ambrose Bierce in these books, and this Bierce has a young journalist sidekick playing the role of Watson. Much like Kem Nunn, Oakly Hall is a true California original . . . a writer's writer who has had a huge influence on much of contemporary California fiction, and his work shouldn't be missed.

Staying with mystery but jumping forward to the present, I wanted to point out Isabel Allende's new novel, Ripper. This novel is a delightful potpourri of crazy genre mashups. The first thing you will be scratching your head about is - Isabel Allende wrote a murder mystery? Set in San Francisco? Yes. She did. Yes, it is THAT Isabel Allende. There's also a hint of the YA teen detective genre -- think a 21st century Nancy Drew kind of vibe, featuring an online group of teens who play the 'game' of solving murders that are written about in the media. When the young protagonist finds herself and her family caught up in a series of murders plaguing The City, the plot begins to unfold at a furious pace. There are some beautifully drawn characters in this one, and an equally beautifully portrait of contemporary San Francisco, focused much more on an old school bohemia, rather than the recently trendy hipster tech subcultures.

Moving into the realm of the fantastic, I wanted to point to our own Richard Kadrey, whose San Francisco based novel Butcher Bird preceded his more famous Sandman Slim series. Butcher Bird is filled to bursting with the local flavor of dive bars and tattoo parlors, and Kadrey's always sharp wit and broad sense of cultural history make it a pleasure to read. Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Paradise Lost, on the mean streets of San francisco, was how I described it when it first came out.

Another San Francisco based writer who has used the City By The Bay for good effect is Pat Murphy. Her novel The City Not Long After was originally published as an adult SF novel, and later reprinted as a YA novel. It's a beautiful novel for children of all ages, and a love song to the culture and people that made The Exploratorium a magical part of our very real San Francisco. Her utopian post-apocalyptic visions of San Francisco fit neatly into the current crop of dystopian/apocolyptic trends.

Staying in the future San francisco for a moment, I wanted to touch on two science fiction novels by Brits that feature San Francisco. The first is Nine Tail Fox by John Courteney Grimwood. It has the vibe of an slightly edgy urban fantasy, but is a 20-seconds-into-the future science fiction story, with a hard noir-ish edge. A dead cop must solve his own murder, from the mean streets of Chinatown to the upscale modern palaces of the Seacliff neighborhood. It's a little bit travelog-y in that the bits of San Francisco that are used for local flavoring are ones that are routinely broadcast beyond our foggy borders, but there's nothing egregiously wrong with Grimwood's San Francisco, and the plot and characters are executed masterfully. And, OMG, what great cover art by Jon Foster.

Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon is another novel that plays around with the Noir-ish elements of solving one's own murder. The San Francisco setting is far future enough that there aren't any physical indicators that it is OUR San Francisco. Rather, this is a book that LOVES Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op, and the psychological portrait of The City is hugely reflective of THAT literary reality. It's sort of like seeing bits of San Francisco in the Star Fleet Academy parts of a Star Trek movie. except instead of the brightly lit utopian office parks and college campus vibe, you get the grimy, poorly-lit, messed up streets of Blade Runner, or DOA, or The Maltese Falcon. It's not OUR San Francisco, but San Francisco has seen itself in this light for a long time now.

An unlikely portrait of San Francisco comes from Anne Rice. It's easy to forget that Anne Rice set An Interview With a Vampire's framing device here in San Francisco, and her novel The Witching Hour takes place mostly in a beautiful old San Franciscan Painted Lady. Rice attended San Francisco State, and wrote Interview while she attended. For a long while after Rice won the writing lottery, it was common to hear snarky grad students from SF State's English department tell apocryphal stories of how Rice's instructors rewrote the novel for her. Jealously is an ugly, ugly thing. But it is clear Rice's early, moody gothic novels came in part from her experiences in 70s and 80s San Francisco.

One of the weirdest and most lovely re-imaginings of San Francisco comes from local author Ysabeau S. Wilce, whose series of YA books focus on the titular hero Flora Segunda. The Kingdom of Califi is a kingdom ruled over by the Aztec-esque Southern Kingdom. While there is an active revolutionary movement, Flora's mother is a general in the Army of the collaboration government, which is based out of San Francisco. There are crumbling Victorians, and magical house spirits who live in them with their human occupants. The Presidio is a massive Army base, full of intrigue and politics. There's magic and adventure and an incredibly subversive political message running throughout this series of books. The three Flora Segunda Novels are three of best "San Francisco" books I've read, although it's definitely a San Francisco you've never seen before.

Speaking of weird and awesome, there are not one, but TWO zombie apocalypse novels set in San Francisco. You MIGHT think I'm going to talk about The Loving Dead by Amelia Beamer. But since that one is set mostly in the East Bay, I wont talk about it. At all. Even though it's awesome. No. The two I'm thinking of are Thomas S. Roche's The Panama Laugh, which features a pretty crazy-wide setting for its apocalypse, but our protagonist eventually finds himself holed up with a bunch of crazies at The Armory in the Mission District. Thomas is an old school San Francisco guy, who actually worked at The Armory for a while, so this one has a lot of stuff that rings true.

The second City-based zombie novel I wanted to mention was The Last Weekend by Nick Mamatas. He's a transplant from the East Coast, but don't hold that against him. His outsider's eye of The City and its politics, and his zany combination of political thriller, disaster movie, and zombie apocalypse novel should not be missed.

I certainly could go on and on about the myriad of novels set in San Francisco. It's a regular destination for the supernatural and the fantastical, as well as the criminal. Before I end this little overview, I wanted to point, once again, to Don Herron. Don has written a wonderful overview of mysteries set in San Francisco, and it can be found here: The other resource that Herron had a hand in helping create is the huge database curated by The Bancroft Library at Cal - A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF CRIME FICTION SET IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA. In part, it was created by cataloging Don Herron's personal collection of San Francisco mystery fiction. It can be found here:, and is an amazing resource to check out. Be careful, though -- it's easy to fall in and lose several hours at a time. And while you are at it, be sure to let us know about YOUR favorite book set in The City.

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