A sampling of mysteries set in 19th-century San Francisco
When you think of “mysteries set in San Francisco,” what comes to mind? Maybe your thoughts turn to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, or you envision noir-ish protagonists such as Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective, Kelli Stanley’s Miranda Corbie, or Mark Coggins’ August Riordan walking down those mean (and steep) streets. If your attention is captured by the famous 1906 earthquake, perhaps your San Francisco mystery musings focus on Rhys Bowen’s Time of Fire and Fog featuring Molly Murphy, Laurie King’s Locked Rooms with protagonist Mary Russell, or Dianne Day’s Fremont Jones series.
But San Francisco’s flirtations with crime fiction extend further back than the previous century. Many authors have placed their characters in 19th-century San Francisco, in eras ranging from the Gold Rush through the Gilded Age. What follows is a sampling of crime fiction novels and series, set in the 1850s through the 1890s, all with at least one foot firmly planted in the city that was once known as the “Paris of the West.”
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
In fiction, as in historical accounts, some folks are just “passing through” San Francisco in search for something or someone. Such is the case for Gold-Rush-era contract killers Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are on the hunt for prospector Hermann Kermit Warm. The brothers’ journey from Oregon Territory to the Sierra foothills is interrupted by a lengthy pause in San Francisco, where the two encounter the “madness of possibilities” that enflamed the city during that time. Their odyssey is darkly comedic, full of murder, intrigue, and genre-bending satire.
Woman of Ill Fame by Erika Mailman
The Gold Rush also brought people who came to the city intending to put down roots and start a new life. In Women of Ill Fame, East Coast prostitute Nora Simms arrives in Gold Rush San Francisco hoping to “strike it rich” in her chosen career and eventually take up residence in a parlor house—the top tier of the profession. However, fate has other plans (this is a mystery, after all). When several prostitutes she knows are murdered, Simms must track down and expose the killer before she becomes the next victim.
Other Side of the Door by Lucia Chamberlain
The Civil War has just ended when 16-year old Eleanor Fenwick witnesses a shooting on the streets of San Francisco. Standing over the body is handsome Johnny Montgomery and he’s holding a pistol in his hand. But… is he guilty? Hmmm. Fenwick’s father is the prosecuting lawyer and urges her to testify at the trial. (The protagonist is young and sheltered. The accused is young and handsome. Keep in mind: this book was written in 1909. I think you can see what’s coming.) Mystery and romance ensue. There are some twists and turns, and some great period descriptions of the city. (Opening line: “The city is always gray.”) You can find this book on gutenberg.org (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25724).
The Mystery of Old San Francisco series, by Nancy Harriman
Harriman’s atmospheric series features British-born Celia Davies and war-scarred police detective Nicholas Greaves. A nurse in the Crimea, Davies comes to San Francisco with her husband, who promptly disappears. Davies stays and opens a free medical clinic for women who have nowhere else to turn. In the first of the series, No Comfort for the Lost, one of Davies’ Chinese patients is brutally murdered. Davies and Greaves join forces to find the killer. The third book in the series, No Quiet among the Shadows, has a March 2020 release date.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
It’s the summer of 1876, and San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman is shot dead. The victim, Jenny Bonnet, dresses in men’s attire and catches frogs for a living. Her friend, French burlesque dancer Blanche Beunon, is determined to bring the murderer to justice—if the killer doesn’t track her down first.
The Driver series by Steve Bartholomew
The year is 1877, the place is… you guessed it… San Francisco, and the protagonist is Georg Vintner, a Norwegian immigrant who drives a streetcar (historical aside: they used horses in those days to pull the cars on the tracks). In the first book The Driver, a man is stabbed in broad daylight on Vintner’s streetcar. Vintner becomes the prime suspect since he was the last one to see the victim alive and there are no witnesses to the murder. The driver is must find the killer and prove his own innocence, or hang for the crime.
A Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, by M. Louisa Locke
Straddling the 1870s and 1880s, this cozy mystery series features respectable, middle-class widow Annie Fuller and an ensemble of friends and family, who chase down the bad guys (and gals) in old San Francisco and nearby environs. When the first novel, Maids of Misfortune, begins, Fuller is running a family-oriented boardinghouse while occasionally taking on the persona of Madam Sibyl, a clairvoyant delivering domestic and business advice. The sixth and most recent novel is Scholarly Pursuits, which takes place on the other side of the San Francisco Bay, at the University of California, Berkeley, 1880.
Port Hazard, A Page Murdock Novel, by Loren D. Estleman
Deputy U.S. Marshal Page Murdock doesn’t know why someone wants him dead, but he knows where the hired killers are coming from—San Francisco’s notorious Barbary Coast. Murdock teams up with former slave and ex-Union soldier Edward Anderson Beecher to uncover the leaders of a Sons of the Confederacy splinter group, which is plotting to renew the Civil War. One reader described the book as “an Amos Walker novel, with everyone wearing boots.” Sounds good to me!
Portia of the Pacific Historical Mysteries by James Musgrave
This San Francisco series features a historical figure, Clara Shortridge Foltz, Esq., as the protagonist. (Aside: Foltz was not only the first woman admitted to the State Bar of California, but also the first female deputy district attorney in the United States, and the first woman named director of a major bank.) There are three books in the series so far. In the first, Chinawoman’s Chance, the fictional Foltz defends a young Chinese man accused of murdering a prostitute. Foltz teams up with San Francisco’s head of detectives, Captain Isaiah Lees, to uncover and trap the real killer.
Sarah Woolson Mysteries series by Shirley Tallman
In another series highlighting a woman lawyer as a protagonist, attorney Sarah Woolson stakes her claim in San Francisco, 1880s. (On her website, author Tallman notes, “My heroine, if she were real, would have been only the third female attorney in the state of California.”) In Murder on Nob Hill, the first of Tallman’s six-book series, Woolson’s client is a young society matron suspected of brutally stabbing to death her wealthy but abusive husband. Woolson is sure of her client’s innocence, and when a second victim falls, this strong-minded woman lawyer is even more determined to find the killer and free her client.
The Ambrose Bierce series by Oakley Hall
Embracing the 1880s and 1890s, this series puts the spotlight on another historical figure: acerbic San Francisco journalist Ambrose Bierce. In the first in the series, Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades, Bierce and fictional newspaperman sidekick Tom Redmond investigate the murders of four women by the “Morton Street Slasher.” Along the way, they unravel a mystery that has ties to the California Gold Rush, state politics, and the railroad boom in California. Hall penned five books for this series.
The Black Dove: A Holmes on the Range Mystery, by Steve Hockensmith
This, the third in Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range series, brings Sherlock-Holmesian cowpokes and brothers Otto “Big Red” and Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer to 1893 San Francisco. Broke and stuck in the city, they find themselves entangled in the mysterious death of an acquaintance, Dr. Chan. Death by murder or suicide? That is the question. Of course, the brothers are on the case, and of course, their investigation takes them to Chinatown, and of course, they are soon up to their necks in trouble (including confrontations with Chinatown crime lords, and Barbary Coast cutthroats) and clues.
Sister Noon by Karen Joy Fowler
Lizzie Hayes, a 40-ish spinster, is the well-born volunteer treasurer of the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society Home. Her orderly, quiet world is upended when the wealthy and well-connected Mary Ellen Pleasant arrives at the door with Jenny, a young girl rumored to be the daughter of a rich family who was swept out to sea. Hayes seeks the truth behind Jenny’s roots and negotiates a series of blackmail attempts while also investigating the mysterious rumors surrounding Mary Ellen’s lifestyle and power.
The Carpenter and Quincannon Mysteries by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
The crime-fighting duo of former Pinkerton agent Sabina Carpenter and ex-Secret Service agent John Quincannon chase down body snatchers, extortionists, flimflammers, thieves, and murderers, and do whatever it takes to run these dregs of society into the arms of the law.
In The Bughouse Affair, the first book of eight in this lighthearted series, Carpenter pursues a ruthless lady pickpocket while Quincannon hunts down a housebreaker who targets the homes of the wealthy. Two murders complicate their investigations, while a stranger claiming to be Sherlock Holmes offers to “help.”
The Ravenwood Mysteries by Sabrina Flynn
This series, which glides from the year 1897 into the new century, features gambler-turned-detective Atticus Riot and heiress-turned-detective Isobel Amsel. In the first of the series, From the Ashes, Riot returns to San Francisco after three years away and is thrown into a case involving a missing heiress, who is, of course, Isobel Amsel. Along with the mystery and adventure, sparks fly. Much of the action occurs in the lawless Barbary Coast and environs. There are six novels and a non-mystery novella in this ongoing series.
As noted, this is just a sample of the crime fiction novels that take place in this time and location. Historically speaking, many “went West” in the 19th century, hoping to make a new life—to reinvent themselves, to escape their pasts, to throw off the bonds of convention, to chase Lady Luck and, should she smile, to strike it rich. San Francisco, the glittering city of gold on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, beckoned and beguiled.
San Francisco strikes me as the perfect venue for weaving stories of high hopes, desperate passions, broken dreams, and devious wrong-doings. Clearly, many other authors of mystery, thrillers, and crime fiction feel the same.
Ann Parker is a science writer by day and historical mystery writer at night. Her award-winning Silver Rush mystery series, set primarily in 1880s Colorado and more recently in the “Paris of the West” San Francisco, features Inez Stannert, a Colorado saloon-owner who reinvents herself as the manager of a music-store and as a 19th-century “angel investor” for women-owned small businesses. The series was named a Booksellers Favorite by the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. The newest book in the series, Mortal Music, finds Inez dealing with dastardly doings in San Francisco’s opera world. For more information about Ann and her books, see www.annparker.net