Mystery, murder on show in ‘Bullets Across the Bay’

When it comes to murder, mayhem and mystery, there’s no place like the San Francisco Bay Area — in fiction, at least. That’s the premise of “Bullets Across the Bay,” a campus exhibit that looks at the storied history of Bay Area mystery writing dating back to Gold Rush days.

Randal Brandt

Randal Brandt

Assembled by Randal Brandt, a longtime staff member in the Bancroft Library, “Bullets” is set to end Wednesday, Feb. 29. Until then the free exhibit, located in the Brown Gallery inside the main (north) entrance to Doe Library, remains open to the public during regular library hours.

The focus of the exhibit is on crime and mystery fiction on both sides of the Bay Bridge, especially San Francisco and Alameda counties. Brandt started research several years ago with a list of about 900 titles of locally themed mystery fiction, the core coming from the Don Herron Collection of San Francisco mysteries in the Bancroft. The list has doubled, Brandt says, as he’s located more books and new ones have come on the market.

Most of the books on display are drawn from campus libraries, highlighting the strength of collections of “genre fiction” at Berkeley. There are cases devoted to local mysteries, mysteries set during notable events — the 1906 earthquake, for example — science-fiction and historical mysteries. There are subgenres like “chick lit,” “street lit” and “ghetto lit,” Brandt notes, along with juvenile, comedic and feline-focused mysteries.    

And don’t forget the illustrations, from the book jacket for Eat Lead, Clown! to the 1996 California Monthly cover featuring an article called “Death Stalks The Campus,” which led to complaints from readers who thought it was about real crimes and murders at Cal, not fictional ones.

Two exhibit cases are given over to some of the local giants of the genre, including Dashiell Hammett, whose 1930 classic Maltese Falcon is widely regarded as a starting point of contemporary detective fiction. Then there’s William White (pen name Anthony Boucher), a Cal alum who wrote mysteries about Berkeley, and is credited as one of the founding fathers of modern mystery and science-fiction writing.

Crime and mystery fiction set on the Berkeley campus gets a case of its own. And Gary Handman, of the campus Media Resources Center, has contributed a video display of snippets from local mystery films.

The Bay Area mystery genre is alive and thriving, Brandt says. “The pace at which new books are being published is staggering. Every time I look, I find something new.” He created and maintains an online database of all the mystery fiction he’s found about the Bay Area at “Golden Gate Mysteries.”

A reception with local mystery writers, open to the public, is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 24, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Morrison Room of Doe Library. For more on the exhibit, see the “Bullets Across the Bay” website.