The Morton Street Slasher has been leaving the corpses of his victims around San Francisco's Union Square. On the women's naked bodies are spade playing cards. The city's infamous newspaperman, Ambrose Bierce, blames the rash of murders on his old enemy, the Southern Pacific Railroad. A naive reporter at Bierce's Hornet pursues the case, uncovering conspiracy at every turn. In a fast-paced novel that is a combination of murder mystery, historical fiction, and quirky biography, Oakley Hall draws the reader into 1880s San Francisco and the changing world that was California in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Local and state politics, the exploitation of the Chinese, the power of the mining and railroad barons, and San Francisco's colorful history provide a backdrop for this irresistible thriller. The novel's chapters are introduced by appropriate excerpts from Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary and narrated by the young reporter Tom Redmond. Redmond is interested in the murders because of his attraction to a woman threatened by the Slasher, and Bierce encourages him because of his personal vendetta against the Big Four of the Railroad.
Bierce's misogyny is an influence as well, which Hall uses to advantage in portraying the enigmatic journalist. Hall knows his territory and his characters well. The sights and smells of late-nineteenth-century California are cleverly evoked, and the story's key players are refreshingly authentic. Bierce brandishes his famed cynicism with all the aplomb of the sharp-eyed, sharp-witted newspaperman he was. Cameo appearances by such California worthies as Ina Coolbrith and Joaquin Miller add to the novel's historical richness. Intelligent, gripping, and often quite funny, Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades will satisfy any reader who craves adventure, mystery, romance, and fine writing.
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(229mm x 152mm x 22mm)
University of California Press
Publisher: University of California Press
Country of Publication:
US Kirkus Review »
The veteran author of such high-spirited realistic romances as The Bad Lands (1978), among others, moves in on Caleb Cart's territory with this colorful historical picaresque. Hall's agreeable hero (and narrator) is 20ish Tom Redmond, an "apprentice journalist" working (in the early 1800s) for a San Francisco "satirical weekly" (The Hornet) who's the wary protege of celebrated writer and misanthrope Ambrose Bierce. Tom's education moves into overdrive when Bierce's interest is piqued by a series of vicious murders of women, whose bodies are left decorated by playing cards (all spades). The cub reporter's tentative research leads to the discovery of a complex stock fraud that points - despite Bierce's antimonopolistic suspicions (he believes the Southern Pacific Railroad guilty of everything) - to a mysterious cooperative: "the Society of Spades in Virginia City [Nevada], which was convened in order to purchase the Jack of Spades Mine." But that's only the beginning, in a beautifully paced thriller that also involves senatorial duplicity, a high-profile divorce, a bizarre case of concealed parentage that must have Wilkie Collins spinning in his grave with envy, and such deliciously devious supporting characters as procuress (and reported black magician) Mammy Pleasant, suspicious Chief of Detectives Isaiah Pusey, and "Highgrade Carrie" Steams, "the Miners' Angel" (in more than one sense). Torn weathers all the storms more than manfully - even if it seems he'll never win the plucky Amelia Brittain. And Hall has the admirable good sense to surrender generous swatches of the narrative to "Bitter Bierce," who declares himself "the sworn enemy of piffle," not to mention Southern Pacific, organized religion, "femininnies," and mogul "(UKP)eland $tanford," among numerous others. And how can you dislike a curmudgeon capable of such invective as "This murderer's adiposity is casting a shadow on my eggs that I fear will turn them rancid"? Superlative entertainment. Has Oakley Hall really been this good all along, and if so why isn't his fiction better known? (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Oakley Hall
Oakley Hall is the author of twenty works of fiction, including Warlock (1958) and Separations (1997). He lives in San Francisco.