In January 1921 the tallest building ever constructed in Tacoma was nearing its topping out at 11th and Pacific. Across the Street, the 12 story Rust Building was newly finished and the city’s rising skyline seemed like a bellwether for community confidence. Then one rainy morning the workers didn’t show up at the Scandinavian American Bank construction site and low rumbles in high places, in the wood paneled board rooms and smoke filled council chambers, suggested something ominous. In the days that followed, the startling corruption behind the use of depositor’s funds by bank president Ole Larson to build the skyscraper lead to the seating of a grand jury and the eventual disclosure that in its collapse the bank returned money to influential individuals, City Hall, and even the Governor while one out of every eight working Tacomans saw their money lost or tied up for years. For most of the 1920’s downtown Tacoma was towered over by a 16 story skeleton, the spectral reminder of power and hubris gone darkly wrong.
That winter a young tubercular artist stood on the corner of 11th and Pacific in the shadow of the abruptly halted steel frame building. He was a shrewd observer of how American cities during the prohibition era were not sinister places because of just bootleggers, gangsters and street criminals. The rise and fall of modern cities and morality was just as often the fault of the rich and politically forceful. During the long street slick nights of that Tacoma winter, the novelist and detective writer Dashiell Hammett formed his experiences into a series of novels and short stories that culminated in The Maltese Falcon, a masterpiece of modern fiction. It is a story about greed, betrayal and situational ethics in a random urban world without heroes or daylight. Today the novel is considered the birthplace of Noir fiction and at its heart is a parable about a man standing on a street corner beneath an unfinished skyscraper in Tacoma. The skyscraper and the story are still there at 11th and Pacific.