Cocktails and mystery just seem to go together. Or at least they do in detective stories of the 1930s and 40s, my favorite era for mystery books and classic movies. Whether it’s the fabulous Nick & Nora Charles and their love of martinis, rye and champagne; a hard-boiled private dick out of Raymond Chandler; or a curious tale of a Notorious villain under Suspicion, spirits and suspense go together.
Last night I visited the new Wilson and Wilson Detective Agency, the bar-within-a-bar at San Francisco institution Bourbon & Branch in the Tenderloin. The new bar’s theme was inspired by a true mystery that can be summed up as The Lady Vanishes.
During renovations for the new space, owners discovered a handbag with a 1932 driver’s license, lipstick, a nail file, and a torn up pair of stockings hidden between two walls. The license belonged to Lorraine Adeline Wilson, a slender redhead with blue eyes who had lived in the Mission. She was 29 at the time.
With this curious set of facts in mind, I rang the buzzer near the slightly seedy corner of Jones and O’Farrell streets. It was just after 6 p.m. A brunette opened the door, filling the entrance with her body. I gave her the password and she moved aside, allowing me into the dark room. Waiting for my eyes to adjust, I carefully walked about 39 Steps. We paused as she stopped to unlatch another door.
I stepped into a small, dim room with a long bar full of bottles, flocked velvet wallpaper and a pressed tin ceiling. The room was back-lit by a frosted window at one end; a mirror image of the words Wilson and Wilson Detective Agency filled the center of the pane. It was quiet except for a grainy voice warbling a song from another era. A Platinum Blonde showed me to a metal tractor seat at the bar. Before she left, she handed me a small manila envelope.
I was just about to look inside, when I noticed the bartender peering at me expectantly. He was a Thin Man.
Tune in this weekend for the thrilling conclusion…