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April 10, 2009

Dante… meet Scottie, you’ll like him

The first flashback came when I wandered through the Marina and found myself walking past a building that was, quite deliberately, designed to look like a Roman ruin, a sketch from Piranesi made real to be precise. It’s called the Palace of Fine Arts, and was built almost a century ago as a temporary structure, one that turned out to be so beautiful it’s been carefully preserved ever since.

By the time I visited the Palace of Fine Arts my mind was already turning to setting part of the new book in San Francisco. Something about this place made it a certainty. The more I walked round this part of the city the more I remembered something I hadn’t enjoyed for years. A movie. One shot in these locations, fifty years before. A scary, odd compelling movie, about love and obsession.

Finally the name clicked and I went out and bought the DVD of Hitchcock’s wonderful Vertigo, then every book I could find that referenced it. Vertigo is an astonishing film, a languid, dreamy nightmare in which the injured San Francisco detective Scottie, played by Jimmy Stewart, becomes entangled with a mysterious woman called Madeleine Elster, who dies and then, in his own imagination, is resurrected as he recreates her in someone he has met in the street.

The opening words of Dante’s Divine Comedy are, ‘Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.’ This is Scottie exactly: a lonely man who spends hours following the mysterious Madeleine through a still-familiar San Francisco, gazing at her in the obsessive way that Dante eyes Beatrice Portinari in the many paintings which depict his story.


Here was the revelation: San Francisco didn’t simply resonate with the world I hope to create in this book. Once I added in Vertigo it was part of that world too, which was something of a scary discovery.

Scottie’s quest paralleled Dante’s. Modern day San Francisco, a city known throughout the world for the way it has been recreated in so many movies, paralleled Rome, a city familiar everywhere, even to those who’ve never set foot in Italy. The symmetry seemed obvious. I didn’t have my book, or even my story. But I did have my canvas, and it was the curious, slightly surreal world that Hitchcock made out of real-life San Francisco.

The wonderful thing is much of it’s still there. Pop back in Monday and I’ll reveal a few of the real-life places I purloined to bring back the ghost of Vertigo in Dante’s Numbers.

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