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Book Review: ‘The Cliff House Strangler’ (A Sarah Woolson Mystery) by Shirley Tallman

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So I am back, reviewing one of the Sarah Woolson cozies, this time titled The Cliff House Strangler by Oregon author Shirley Tallman. In this third installment of the series, 1880s female attorney Sarah Woolson leaves the prestigious, male-chauvinistic law firm of Shepard and Shepard to open her own financially struggling law office above a bake shop. The novel opens with Sarah Woolson and former colleague Robert Campbell participating in a Madame Karpova séance at the Cliff House, attended by a few members of the San Francisco elite. After being treated to an absorbing oft-hallucinogenic séance, we find that one of the attendees is brutally strangled in his chair.

The event plunges our dear Sarah into the investigation with bull-like determination and cat-like curiosity. Of course, no one believes her. After all, she is only a woman, and a female attorney at that, an occupation frowned upon in the old male-dominated San Francisco days. This causes Sarah to work triply hard on proving her case. When two more séance attendees are found murdered and Madame Karpova is arrested for the murder, the case takes on the mantle of conspiracy and city hall corruption. But of course, only Sarah recognizes this.

In this episode, Sarah’s headlong and determined character is consistent with the past two novels of the series, traits that endear us to her character. The narrative is a true cozy, giving us a flavor of 1880s San Francisco with its taxi carriages, horse-drawn buses, and narrow unpaved streets. The city neighborhoods are all there (Russian Hill, Nob Hill, the Barbary Coast, Market Street, Sutter Street, etc.), but seen from an older prism, one of the many engaging aspects of the novel.

Is it a light novel? Of course, it is. That’s what cozies are, but it is also thick with suspense and plot, not to mention a unique, completely absorbing setting. The narrative prose is smooth, consistent, and vintage Sarah. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Five deserving stars.

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