Part of the fun of reading books is discovering midlist authors who have published good books but are still relatively unknown to the general public. Even with good editorial reviews, their titles languish in the Amazon ranking abyss.
Such is the case with Oregon author Shirley Tallman, who has published a stable of highly-entertaining books from Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press. When I recently read one of her cozies, The Russian Hill Murders, I wondered why I haven’t heard of her or any of her work. Is it because she’s not a name brand author and had been passed over by the press? The book was incredibly well-written and so engrossing I finished it in two days.
The novel features a tough-minded socialite, Sarah Woolson, a female attorney in late 19th-century San Francisco working for the largest law firm in the city. Being a woman, and despite her success in solving a Nob Hill murder, she is treated as the company go-fer, asked to perform mundane tasks such as typing correspondence and making coffee for the stodgy partners who are of the opinion that law practice has no place for a woman.
This second-class treatment galls Woolson. When a socialite chairing a hospital’s charity event dies in the middle of a sit-down dinner, Woolson’s catlike curiosity for sniffing out crimes where none seemingly exists goes into overdrive. Her suspicion is further validated after the accountant managing the charity’s finances mysteriously dies of food poisoning. When the hospital’s Chinese chef is conveniently arrested, Woolson’s instinct tells her the perpetrator is someone else. This sends her on an investigative path to find the truth against the wishes of her bosses.
The novel takes the reader to the belly of San Francisco’s 1890s underworld, from the rough-and-tumble streets of the Barbary Coast, to the city’s powerful tong gangs, to Chinatown’s filthy sweatshops, contrasting it with the city’s socialite world of which Sarah Woolson is a part.
Good books such as this are getting harder and harder to come by. The narrative is evocative and funny, the voice, impeccably unique. The reader can’t help but root for Woolson and follow her journey to the satisfying conclusion. This is a highly enjoyable novel, one that takes the reader to unusual time and places.
Its sequel, The Cliff House Strangler is already in my Kindle bookshelf, glowing like a smoldering coal, waiting to be read.