Scandal on Rincon Hill – Shirley Tallman

Scandal on Rincon Hill is a period murder mystery but I wouldn’t call it a legal thriller as one book review did. Shirley Tallman creates a heroine who is an anomaly in nineteenth century San Francisco, a young woman fervently dedicated to her profession as an attorney with the support of her family, more or less. The “less” is her mother’s heartfelt desire to see her married and settled. But Sarah Woolson has determined that, as married women are the property of their husbands (legally, really!) and not free to develop their own careers, marriage is a state she can never afford. Nonetheless, she is ardently pursued by two very attractive and persistent polar opposites throughout her adventures.

Sarah seems to be operating a one-woman legal services clinic–her clients are prostitutes and indigent Chinese laborers, fresh off the boat. She moves without too much propriety through the seedier back alleys of San Francisco, popping in and out of upscale bawdy houses, disreputable newspaper offices and murder scenes at will. When a scientist is brutally murdered just blocks from her home in a “good” neighborhood, the tabloids go berserk. Then another, similar murder happens and the police are hellbent to pin the crimes on someone and stop the public panic. The two murders appear to be related, although no one can connect them to a killer. And then two young Chinese immigrants are arrested and framed for the crime.

Meanwhile Sarah gets involved with a beautiful “kept” woman who has been dumped on the street by her prominent married lover, despite a signed contract that he will support her. She and her cherubic infant take up residence in the city’s fanciest bordello and she approaches Sarah to represent her in a suit against the ex-lover. The boss of the Chinese tong, well-known to Sarah, takes an interest in the fate of the Chinese suspects who seem destined for a lynch mob. Sarah is spotted going into the bordello by an unscrupulous reporter who writes about her indiscretion in a lurid tabloid. A slick, besotted shipping magnate, a hunk naturally, returns from Hong Kong to pursue Sarah. Her former colleague–less smooth, equally besotted–lurks around, scowling. Her beloved brother is still pretending to be a law clerk but really establishing a major reputation as a fearless crime reporter, unbeknownst to their father, the judge. It’s complicated. And the murders aren’t over yet.

Pretty good light reading–some nice historical detail and some conversational ticks that seem a bit mannered. Sarah is extremely aware of acceptable convention and rather pushy and that isn’t always believable in her corseted society.  The characters aren’t too deeply imagined but the stereotypes hold up if you don’t expect too much. The resolution is sudden and neater than I could cheer about–can’t really see it coming, even after it happens. But decent escapist mystery, no real thrills, characters to follow but not really root for. Pure genre, not high art but not bad.

Scandal on Rincon Hill: A Sarah Woolson Mystery (Sarah Woolson Mysteries)   Shirley Tallman | St. Martin’s Press   2010

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