Friday, August 27, 2010

Seth Harwood: Fog on the Horizon

Photo: Mark Coggins
Continuing the San Francisco Mystery Theme this week, I'll be posting a few articles that appeared in the Mystery Readers Journal: San Francisco Mysteries I (Volume 24:3) 2008. To see the Table of Contents of this issue or to buy the issue as a .pdf download or hardcopy, go HERE.

Seth Harwood is the author of JACK WAKES UP, the world’s first crime novel to be serialized as a podcast. He has since podcast two more novels in the JACK PALMS Crime series and is the host of, a weekly series of crime stories by various writers. JACK WAKES UP will be published in Summer 2009 by Three Rivers Press. For more info, visit

Fog on the Horizon by Seth Harwood

James Joyce said a writer has to have three things: silence, exile and cunning. I don’t know about how my silence or cunning stack up, but when I landed in the Bay Area three years ago from my native Boston, it didn’t take long to realize I’d found my share of exile. From one coast to the other is far! Factor in the reality that by 8PM here most of my family and friends are asleep, and I’ve been good to go.

Until I got to San Francisco, I never fully understood why Joyce said exile was important. I know when he moved from Ireland, he thought he could create it better, make his own Dublin in his head and on the page without the distractions of reality. For me, it worked differently: I saw San Francisco as a new landscape without emotional attachments or the distortions of memory. I saw the city like a painter would see his subject. I started exploring San Francisco and pretty immediately found myself writing my first crime novel, JACK WAKES UP.

Suddenly I wrote scenes set on Market St., at Fisherman’s Wharf, in Sausalito, North Beach, and Embarcadero Plaza. I don’t think it was any coincidence that the novel I was writing was crime. Outside of my own slow realization that the kind of movies and TV shows I’ve always loved—James Bond, Hong Kong Cinema and Kung Fu action, Dirty Harry, cops and spies—it was something about the city that brought out the action and crime in my writing. This city isn’t infused with it, but there’s a sense of the blood on the streets—at least in a literary sense—that I couldn’t ignore. Whether it’s Hammett’s Sam Spade or the Continental Op, Dirty Harry, Frank Bullitt, or whomever else you’d like to mention, there’s always been a great history of crime thrillers, or mysteries, if you prefer, in San Francisco. This, without a doubt, has infected my writing, perhaps even changed the genre in which I write.

I think it must be the fog that started it all. The way it creeps in off the ocean and rolls out over the bridge, over Twin Peaks, and out into the Bay. Now that I live high in the hills of Berkeley, I watch it regularly take the Golden Gate out of sight, then Alcatraz and Angel Island, and finally the tall buildings of downtown. On a particularly foggy night, it claims Berkeley too and all but a few houses on the street below mine. It’s a menacing fog, with crevices instead of shadows, that creeps in and seals the spaces between skyscrapers and row houses. Add in the hills, not only the ones that defy a car chase for those less rugged than Mr. Bullitt, but the ones you never want to scale, the ones you’ll walk five blocks out of your way to avoid, and you have a great recipe for fear. The way the heights limit your range of exploration makes the city even darker, more narrow-seeming, makes its inhabitants feel even more trapped in.

In my own way I’ve been able to observe this from a detached standpoint. I might always be an outsider here in San Francisco, and maybe that makes me a lot like everyone else, but the exile that I’ve found here and the fresh eyes it’s given me have enabled one important thing: for me to see the city’s true mood, the dark brooding tension of the strip clubs so radiantly lining North Beach, the pockets of the city that you don’t even want to drive through (but often do), the ranting, meandering homeless of these streets and the iconic, unintentionally ironically-named “Hall of Justice.” I see it all and most importantly I can see my characters. Wherever they’ve come from—Boston, New York, SOMA, Sausalito, Scarface, or Pulp Fiction—they’re here on these streets walking among the fog, hiding in the alleys. Perhaps you’ve seen them or might soon hear them shout.

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