Friday, June 12, 2009

Randal Brandt: Creator of Golden Gate Mysteries

At Home Online with Randal Brandt, creator of Golden Gate Mysteries, an online bibliography of mystery and crime fiction in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I host author At Homes (Literary Salons) in Berkeley, CA. For those who can't make those, I have At Home Online on the Mystery Readers International site. Usually these are author to author interviews, but occasionally I interview authors or other mystery related people.

Mystery Readers Journal recently had two issues focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area. These were great issues, and we were lucky enough to have Randal Brandt contribute two articles, one in each issue. In Volume 24, No. 3 (Fall 2008), he wrote an article on Golden Gate Mysteries, and in Volume 24, No. 4 (Winter 2008-2009), he wrote an article on The Birthplace of Modern Crime Fiction: A survey of San Francisco Mysteries Before The Maltese Falcon. So, I thought it was time I found out more about Randal Brandt and why he does what he does. Hence this At Home Online. Feel free to ask follow-up questions in comments.

JR: What made you decide to start Golden Gate Mysteries: A Bibliography of Crime Fiction Set in the San Francisco Bay Area?

RB: I’ve been a fan of genre fiction, and especially mystery fiction, for a long time. I’ve also had a long-standing interest in geographic locations in mystery fiction. When my wife and I travel, we like to take books along on the trips that are set in the places we are planning to visit. Sometimes, finding appropriate—and interesting—books is easier than others. So, I started looking at various reference books that included settings indexes. I noticed that San Francisco always had a lot of entries, including many books and authors I had never heard of. Then I started working at The Bancroft Library, which collects San Francisco fiction, and decided to see how many Bay Area mystery titles I could come up with. That first list, created in 2002, had just over 900 titles, dating back as early as 1853—which is amazing when you consider that the city of San Francisco was still in its infancy then.

JR: Why do you think so many mysteries are set in the Bay Area?

RB: The sheer number of mystery, crime, and detective novels set in and around San Francisco never ceases to amaze me. I haven’t done the math, but San Francisco certainly rivals much bigger cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. From its beginnings as a Wild West gold rush town, with the Barbary Coast, the Committee of Vigilance, Chinatown, and political corruption, crime has always been a big part of San Francisco’s history. Then, of course, the modern private detective novel was born here in 1928, when Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in his apartment on Post Street. And, its popularity as a setting continues today, with literally dozens of mystery novels published each year with Bay Area settings.

JR: How did you do your initial research?

RB: I describe my research methods it pretty much detail on the website (see the Methodology page), but one of the most important strategies is missing from that page: serendipity. I can’t tell you how many times a book has caught my eye—often just the spine—and I’ve picked it up, only to discover that it is a crime novel set in the Bay Area. The most recent occurrence of this was just last week, when I found a copy of The Lost One by Dana Lyon. It is a 1958 suspense novel about the kidnapping of an infant from an East Bay hospital. I do have a couple of other titles by Lyon in my list, so it was actually her name that caught my eye. But, I had never heard of this one before.

JR: Have things changed in terms of research since you began your online bibliography?

RB: Things have not really changed that much, at least not since the early 2000s. I guess the biggest change is that there is a new interface to the WorldCat database that is accessible to the general public. When I was using that database to compile the bibliography—and in ongoing research—you had to be affiliated with a library that paid for access. So, I guess I’ve lost my “librarian advantage”; anyone can do this now! Actually, that’s a really great thing. Another change is that additions to Hubin’s Crime Fiction bibliography are being made online, so it is easier for me to keep up with new entries.

JR: Have you read all the books in your bibliography?

RB: Ha! That’s a good one! There are, at present, over 1,600 titles in the bibliography. Even if I were a fast reader (which I’m not), it would take many years to read them all. But, I would love to have plot summaries for every book. So, I’m always looking for contributors willing to provide short (200-300 words) summaries. There’s no money in it, but I give credit where credit is due.

JR: What are the latest additions to your Bibliography?

RB: The latest additions are a mixture of the new and the old. On the new side: The Incredible Double (2009) by Owen Hill; Jump (2009) by Tim Maleeny; The Big Wake-Up (2009) by Mark Coggins. And the old: Death for Safety by Eve Dennis, a 1949 British novel featuring an amateur sleuth in San Francisco; and a trio of juvenile novels (1980-1992) by Patricia Elmore featuring a grade-school detective named Susannah Higgins who investigates some pretty serious mysteries, including a suspicious death, poisoned Halloween candy, and arson.

JR: Do people send you titles?

RB: Occasionally. The Eve Dennis title I mentioned earlier came from a fan of the website. I had never heard of it before he sent me the citation. He was very proud to have located a title that I didn’t know about. And I was extremely grateful to receive it.

JR: Would you like people to send you more titles?

Absolutely! I would especially love to hear from authors who have new books coming out.

JR: Who are your favorite 3 authors on your bibliography and why?

That’s a really tough question. The Bay Area has been the literary home of some of the greatest icons of crime fiction, Edgar Award winners (and Grand Masters), and best-sellers. But, if I had to name my favorites, I’ll have to go with some of the forgotten writers of the past. Alice MacGowan and Perry Newberry collaborated on a series of pre-Hammett novels about a San Francisco police officer-turned-private detective that provide an interesting take on detective fiction before Sam Spade showed up on the scene. Nancy Barr Mavity wrote six novels in the late 20s-early 30s about an intrepid investigative newspaperman named James Alyosius “Peter” Piper, who solves several murders in and around the East Bay and has a different colorful catchphrase in each book. Whitman Chambers was a prolific author of the 30s and 40s, who set several standalone suspense novels in the Bay Area. My favorite is 13 Steps (1935) about an Oakland man condemned to hang in San Quentin, who recalls the events leading to his execution as he climbs the gallows stairs. And, of course, there is David Dodge, who is probably the most to blame for this whole bibliography. You can find out more about Dodge than you ever wanted to know at my other website, A David Dodge Companion. Okay, that’s four. Sorry.
JR: What do you do for a “living”? (or tell us about yourself)

RB: I have been a librarian at the University of California, Berkeley since 1991, working in a variety of libraries. Currently, I am Principal Cataloger at The Bancroft Library (where my website is hosted). The Bancroft Library is the special collections library of Cal and collects everything from ancient Egyptian papyrus to modern literature (including Bay Area mystery novels!). I specialize in cataloging rare books and many of the coolest books the library owns cross my desk at one time or another.

JR: If you could change something about the bibliography and website, what would it be?

RB: I would love to change the website from static HTML pages to an interactive database, with different search features so that users could do more research based on the site. I once got an email from someone who was trying to locate a book. He couldn’t remember the author or the title, but it concerned a present-day mystery that could be traced back to the Haight-Ashbury music scene in the ‘60s. The way my website is now, unless there is a summary, there is no way to track something like that down. (I did eventually locate the book, Concert of Ghosts (1992) by Campbell Armstrong, but only through sheer dumb luck, not research.) Anyway, I am recording much of this type of information; I just don’t have the skills—or time—to put it into the website…yet.

JR: What do you read when you’re not reading Bay Area mysteries?

Contrary to popular belief, I do occasionally read other things. My tastes tend to run towards the hard-boiled and thriller schools. I really like Val McDermid, especially the Tony Hill novels. I just started reading Ian Rankin (I know, finally!) and I tend to take two or three Hard Case Crime paperbacks with me whenever I fly somewhere. But, my favorite author has to be Greg Rucka, who writes two series that I just love. He’s also a prolific comics writer and graphic novelist, and I highly recommend his books.

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