Tag Archives: San Francisco

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

Murder in the Abstract – Susan C. Shea

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Murder in the Abstract takes place in the museum and gallery worlds of San Francisco and Santa Fe—locations can be a good enough reason to read a book. Susan C. Shea worked in fundraising for education and arts organizations before turning her talents to writing fiction so she gets the role of development director for a museum just right. There is some product name-dropping at the start, to create bona fides for a wealthy milieu, I suppose. That is such a tired tactic that it stands out. But events and motives quickly overtake the ads and a suicide at an art museum exhibit opening moves front and center.

The suicide is really a homicide—an artist who pitched himself, or was pushed, from the fifth floor window of the museum’s development director. She is flabbergasted and freaked out—apparently the artist had a letter, signed by her and on museum stationery, inviting him to meet her in her office. OK, she didn’t send it but Dani O’Rourke has history with the splattered artist. Their brief relationship ended in a very public disagreement and now she is a suspect. She gives a first-person account of events–the voice is competently managed. And the cast is studded with artists, museum directors, collectors, gallery owners and cute cops. Hmmm.

Dani’s ex (husband, not the now-abstract boyfriend) is a charming and exceptionally wealthy playboy who can’t resist coming to her rescue, invited or not. Her best friend is an artist who is somehow endangered by events and nearly ends up dead herself. A development assistant is too flirtatious and invites suspicion. Dani’s boss, the museum director, owns a very risky secret.  A collusion to hoard and market a new kind of forgery shadows events from the background as Dani takes a break from tense doings in San Francisco and steps into a lethal mix of treacherous media in charming Santa Fe.  Museums are not sanctuaries in this mystery and galleries are perilous repositories of experimental paintings and unsentimental perps.

Murder in the Abstract is really a lot of fun. People do die—not the amusing parts—but the heroine’s voice is a kind of sophisticated Bridget Jones Diary persona and the tension is pretty low-key. The art world is ripe for cruising and the insider knowledge about nefarious collecting practices adds to the appeal. The book was a fast, light read and a reprieve from the longer daily volumes that inevitably cost me sleep. I need to look for a few more of those to vary this marathon. I’d read another book by Susan Shea, if she sticks to the volatile intersection of greed and art with all the trappings to lure an armchair voyeur.

Murder in the Abstract   Susan C. Shea | Avalon Books  2010