"Miranda didn't hear the sound when his face hit the sidewalk."
Chesterfield-puffing, .22-toting MIRANDA CORBIE, the heroine of City of Dragons (2010), Kelli Stanley’s finely realized and unapologetically hard-boiled historical noir, is a welcome blow of secondhand smoke straight into the face of all those squeaky clean amateur sleuths (and small animals) who have flooded bookstore shelves recently.
The former whore (okay, she says “escort) is now a gumshoe in 1940s San Francisco, with an office on the fringes of Chinatown a place where the Chinese and other Asian communities seek refuge and safety in numbers from the city’s dominant white majority who “can’t tell them apart anyway.”
But it’s a fragile peace at best, thanks to the Japanese invasion of China and the subsequent Nanking Massacre of 1937, and the rising political and racial tensions between the communities are threatening to explode.
Into this powder keg struts Miranda, simply seeking a shortcut home through the crowded streets where a giant combination Chinese New Year/Rice Bowl Party (to “raise money for war-torn China”) is in full steam. Then Eddie Takahashi, a Japanese youth and runner for a local gangster, keels over on the sidewalk right in front of Miranda. In the confusion and firecrackers, it takes her a moment to realize that this isn’t simply a case of someone partying too heartily the boy has been murdered. Miranda doesn’t particularly want to get involved, but when the authorities try to sweep it all under the carpet, she rises to the occasion, not just talking the talk but walking the walk, like the long-lost soul sister of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.
The period detail seems spot-on and never gratuitous, Miranda’s wry observations sharp and to the point, and the political and racial nuances of the era (Miranda’s still hurting from the loss of her love in the Spanish Civil War) finely etched and sympathetically drawn, and yet Stanley never lets her eyes off the prize. Deep down, it’s the story that matters, not its setting, and Miranda’s search for the truth, if not justice, is one that will reverberate and leave a gritty aftertaste long after the covers have been closed on this one.
One of the most convincing and intriguing P.I. debuts I’ve read, and certainly the most fully realized historical private eyes to come down the pike in a long time.
Meg Abbott? Max Collins? Watch out.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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