San Francisco Noir

By: Peter Maravelis



Recently strolling through the narrow back alleys of Chinatown, I chanced upon an elderly Asian man playing a Chinese double-stringed violin known as an erhu. He was performing an eerie and atonal rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” I noticed a faint smile upon his lips as his fingers moved effortlessly up and down the neck of his delicate instrument. His sweet and ominous music followed me down the crooked cobblestone paths as I made my way to work that day.

Since then, I have repeatedly sighted him throughout North Beach and Chinatown. He always performs the same song in the same strange manner. It appears to be the only tune in his repertoire. The melody has become so embedded upon my psyche that it now serves as the de facto soundtrack for my walks through the city.

A few days ago, I caught yet another glimpse of the erhu-playing man. This time, he was performing a couple yards away from a scraggly and comatose guy doubled-up on the ground adjacent to a bus shelter. Next to the unconscious fellow was a paper coffee cup containing a scant number of dirty coins and a weakly scrawled sign pleading for a handout. Directly above him stood a billboard that read: Is your business due for termination? The ad was paid for by an organization calling itself Nevada Rescue. It displayed a photo of a middle-aged white man’s beleaguered face, covered in bruises. The billboard was referring to the recent downturn in the SF economy, encouraging the soon-to-be-disenfranchised to “jump ship” and join the burgeoning labor camps of Nevada. I asked the musician if he could play me a different tune. He smiled without reply.

San Francisco is a city shaped by protean forces. The fusion of terrain, weather, and seismic phenomena has produced an exquisitely volatile ecology. Hazardously steep hills lead into lush garden communities engulfed by banks of fog that roll through with regularity. The salty ocean air eats away at beachfront bungalows while constant tremors loosen the foundations of the most well-reinforced buildings. Skyscrapers built atop landfill haunt the dreams of jaded FEMA administrators, while insects the size of thumbnails threaten to crush local agribusiness. An eroding coastline offers even the staunchest of non-Buddhists a sobering meditation upon impermanence. These perilous conditions punctuate life on the edge of a continent. The divine travels on a collision course with the dangerous.

The city has also been shaped by dreams. Since its birth in the 1700s, immigrants have flocked to San Francisco in the hope of reinventing their lives. From the Gold Rush of the 1840s to the dot-com madness of the late twentieth century, the city has experienced successive waves of newcomers that have radically altered its profile. A myriad of social universes have come into being, quite often bleeding into each other’s orbit. This has resulted in a rich cross-pollination of cultures. It has also led to tragic consequences. From “be-ins” to lynchings, San Franciscans have long had to live with a dialectic revolving around tolerance and backlash.

The operating motive behind this anthology has been to breach a certain literary canon. Crime fiction is the scalpel used to reveal San Francisco’s pathological character. The contributors perform a brutal examination of the passions that govern life in the city. We offer tales that draw their breath from the obscured recesses of collective history.

Since the end of World War II there has been an ever-increasing rate of homelessness and displacement among the city’s populace. This has been coupled with a privatization of public space that has largely erased the last structures of historic relevance. Some of the key questions that we hope to pose are: What happens when the history of a city begins to disappear? What happens to literature when it feeds upon the ruins of amnesia?

Bitterness becomes our poetry. We intend to poison you with its beauty.

San Francisco Noir brings together a stellar cast of writers to help expose the psychogeography of a city. Hidden and repressed memories are a focal point, as some of the best local writers, inside and out of the genre of crime fiction, weave tales that speak of the elemental motifs that surface in everyday life. These hard-biting stories explore San Francisco’s shadowy nether regions in their sinister splendor. From inner-city boroughs like the Mission to the outlands of the Richmond, the authors investigate a broad cross section of the town. Landscape, historicity, and ethnicity are the backdrops as desperation, transgression, and madness fuel tales that offer a uniquely chthonic view of San Francisco.

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