San Francisco, California
The Maltese Falcon is set in the foggy, hilly, windy city of San Francisco in the late 1920s. Hammett knew San Francisco like the back of his hand (he worked there in his early twenties as a Pinkerton operative, and later returned to the city to write his novels). So reading The Maltese Falcon is like taking a (very long) walk through the different neighborhoods of San Francisco.
You can find the same hotels, the same restaurants, and the same small alleyways. Any San Francisco native will recognize the familiar street names that are sprinkled throughout the novel, streets like Geary and Leavenworth, Bush and Market, Sutter and Kearny, California and Powell. (If you're feeling especially ambitious, we challenge you to print out a map of the city and track the movements of the characters. They cover a lot of ground.).
Not Exactly Paradise
San Francisco in the late 1920s was a pretty treacherous place. After the Stock Market Crash in 1929, the economy experienced a sudden collapse. Jobs were scarce and people became desperate to find ways to provide for their families. With the passing of prohibition laws that banned the sale and supply of alcohol, organized crime escalated at an alarming rate because it offered a quick (albeit dangerous) way to make money. Criminals like Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were big headliners of the day. Chicago was the hardest hit when it came to mob violence, but New York, Philadelphia and Boston also experienced a huge increase in organized crime.
Where does San Francisco fit into this equation? Well, S.F. had a much lower rate of criminal violence in the 1920s and 1930s compared to the other big urban cities in the country. But Frisco still had to contend with its own fair share of gangsters and the atmosphere of criminal activity is very pervasive throughout The Maltese Falcon.
The best example of the dangerous atmosphere of the city appears in the second chapter of the novel. The chapter's title "Death in the Fog" already tells us to get ready for something bad to happen, and the scene opens with Spade answering the telephone. We learn that someone is dead (we don't know who yet), and this information is followed by two short, but striking descriptions of San Francisco:
- Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn's dull moaning. (2.4)
- San Francisco's night fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant, blurred the street. (2.8)
In the first description, notice the eerie quality of the cold night wind and the "dull moaning" of Alcatraz's foghorn. It's an ill wind that blows no good. Also keep in mind that Alcatraz was a military prison in the twenties, so the sound of the foghorn wasn't exactly a friendly tooting, but rather a sinister reminder that dangerous prisoners were locked up just a few miles away out in the bay.
In the second description of San Francisco, this sense of eeriness is further emphasized by the fog, which is damp and clings to your clothes. We get chills just reading that sentence. The fact that the fog "blurs" the street, making it difficult to see clearly, can also be read more symbolically as a sign of the city's general state of confusion and lack of clarity. In a world full of corruption, characters' motives are unclear and ambiguous, and urban life is chaotic and hazardous.