In the early 1920s, when Hammett was still sleuthing, the San Francisco branch of
the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, (the real-life counterpart of the Continental)
was located at 870 Market Street, at Powell: the James Flood Building.
Located on Market next to the cable car turntable, the Flood Building has appeared
on picture postcards for over a century. A massive twelve-story structure, its ornate
marble hallways contain hundreds of offices, including room 314, the former Pinkerton
“The Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco office is located in a Market Street
office building,” the Continental Op tells us in “The Big Knockover.” The route
that the Op takes after leaving his office makes it pretty clear that he was talking
about the Flood Building, where, not coincidentally, Hammett was once employed by
the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
In the autumn of 2003, I visited room 314, accompanied by fellow Hammett enthusiast
Vince Emery. The office was unoccupied at that time, and in the process of renovation,
awaiting a new tenant.
If you saw the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Donald Sutherland,
these hallways probably look very familiar.
314 itself was surprisingly small – only 11 by 17 feet, but it adjoined to offices
on either side. Presumably, this room was used as a reception area to greet potential
clients. Unfortunately, over the previous eighty-or-so years, the building interior
had been remodeled and reconfigured countless times; there exists no record showing
exactly which offices the Pinks occupied in addition to 314. Still, it’s fun to
Vince Emery, the publisher responsible for much of the renewed interest in Hammett.
In the 1920s, the view from the window would have been of the old Emporium. In 2003,
the facade of the old Emporium was hidden behind a huge sheet of white vinyl, while
it was being transformed into the Bloomingdales-anchored San Francisco Centre. Looking
from the window of 314, all you could see was... white. It remained that way until
Vince and I decided (based on nothing at all, of course) that the adjoining room
immediately to the left was where the operatives waited for assignments and interviewed
clients. The room on the right belonged to the supervisor, called the Old Man in
the stories. In real life, the boss was Phil Geauque (pronounced Jee-ack).
The Op tells us that the Old Man, after a half-century of detective work had been
left with no feelings on any subject. He was equally dispassionate about a weather
report or a multiple homicide. It’s difficult to say at this late date if this reflected
Geauque’s true personality.
It’s also interesting to note that John’s Grill, mentioned prominently in The Maltese
Falcon, is directly next door the Ellis Street entrance to the Flood building. No
doubt, Hammett used to duck out the back door to grab a bite at John’s.