City of Dragons: A San Francisco Mystery
by Kelli Stanley
Review by Cathy Green
Minotaur Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312603601
Date: 02 February 2010 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Miranda Corbie, the private investigator protagonist of Kelli Stanley's latest book, City Of Dragons, set in 1940 San Francisco, is the sort of dame Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade and Continental Op would like to have a drink with and commiserate about the state of their profession and the world in general. But even they might be a bit shocked by just how cynical Miranda is.
A veteran of the Spanish Civil War, where she lost the man she loved and probably suffering from PTSD, Miranda is a deeply cynical, world-weary, angry woman. Having worked as a nurse and an escort, before hiring on with a detective agency as the bait in divorce cases, Miranda got her PI license and took over the firm when her mentor was killed, bringing his killer to justice, as hard-boiled detectives are wont to do. If the men in her life would just stop trying "to save" her, maybe she could get on with things.
As the novel opens, Miranda is minding her own business in Chinatown, attending Rice Bowl festivities to raise money for China in the wake of the Rape of Nanking, when she stumbles upon Eddie Takahashi dying in the street. He dies in her arms without saying much, and in time honored hard-boiled fashion she decides to solve his murder, since no one is much interested in solving the death of a Japanese numbers runner. Could it be connected to the hit and run death that occurred just a few blocks away? No one wants her to find out – not the police, not the Eddie's family, not the Chinese and Filipino gangsters Eddie ran with. And where is Eddie's missing sister?
Meanwhile, Miranda takes on a new paying client, Helen Winters, whose husband Lester died at the Pickwick hotel under ambiguous circumstances and whose step-daughter Phyllis, an addict, is missing and might be involved. Helen Winters hires Miranda to find Phyllis and prove her husband was murdered, and do it discretely. Since Miranda is willing to talk seriously (and without use of racial epithets) to the Chicana maid and the African-American elevator operator, she makes quite a bit more headway than the cops and the hotel detective.
While working on the case, Miranda runs into a girl she knew when working as an escort, who later turns up dead with Miranda's card in her pocket, as often happens in this type of book. No one cares much about a dead Chinese whore except Miranda, who feels a moral obligation to her late friend and thus acquires another non-paying client.
With the help of her friend and fellow Spanish Civil War veteran, newspaperman Rick Sanders, who wants to be her knight in shining armor and more; a labor organizer and Communist Party firebrand; and her lawyer, and alternately helped and hindered by various members of the SFPD, Miranda keeps digging and begins to think that all her cases might be connected.
Stanley does a great job of recreating just pre-WWII San Francisco, making the city and its many ethnic neighborhoods come alive. Of course, because of when the story is set, most people's attitudes are decidedly unmodern and racial epithets are flung with some frequency. It's also the well before Supreme Court decisions such as Miranda and the cops operate in a manner not much different than the thugs they arrest.
Stanley keeping things moving at a fast clip and ties all the plot threads neatly together. She also assembles and interesting cast of colorful characters that could easily recur should there be future books starring Miranda Corbie. This is a fast-paced, period, noir thriller that could easily be a black and white movie on the TCM cable channel.