In Kelli Stanley’s extremely capable hands, the tale told in CITY OF DRAGONS is a picture- and pitch-perfect account of a complex and gripping tale set in a San Francisco 70 years removed from modern times, one in which the city and its culture becomes not only familiar with but also reflective of how the same exists today. Such a work does not occur by happenstance; indeed, there is an intriguing afterword that describes how Stanley immersed herself in the past in order to create the magic that you will find in this story of murder and mystery. Add her considerable talent as a wordsmith --- in one passage, there is a short description of the wares of a drugstore that alone is worth the price of admission --- and you have an instant winner that earns a place of prominence and permanence on your bookshelf.
"Stanley immersed herself in the past in order to create the magic that you will find in this story of murder and mystery."
Stanley, without a prologue, drops her reader right in the midst of things. The year is a very uneasy 1940, with a great deal of the world at war and the United States on the narrow cusp of it. San Francisco is in the midst of a Rice Bowl Party, a three-day extravaganza coinciding with the Chinese New Year and raising money for China’s war relief as it battles with Japan. The core of the story revolves around Miranda Corbie, a 33-year-old private investigator with a notorious past and a colorful reputation as an operative known for cracking difficult, high-profile cases. Corbie is a damaged soul whose tough exterior marks her, at least initially, as being not so much a sympathetic character as a competent one. She is slowly making her way through a Chinatown crowd when a man falls at her feet and dies before her eyes. The victim, badly beaten and then shot, is Eddie Takahashi, a nobody with a minor criminal record. Corbie, in a bad place at a worse time, feels duty bound to bring Takahashi’s murderer to justice.
No one else, however, seems remotely interested in the murder, from the top of the city government down to the gangsters who control the vice on the freewheeling streets of the city. Warned off by both the police and the hoods --- some well-intentioned, some not so much --- Corbie becomes all the more determined to discover the identity of the killer. This is made more difficult not only by the reticence of the Chinese community to cooperate with a white authority figure, but also by the antipathy felt toward the Japanese people at that time and place, and toward a Japanese murder victim.
There is more impeding Corbie’s investigation than blind prejudice. Everyone from the highest offices at San Francisco’s City Hall to the lowest grifter in the city’s Tenderloin area seems to want her to leave the matter alone. Undaunted, Corbie follows a slender and fragile thread that leads her into a seamy criminal enterprise with ties that stretch across the divergent elements of the city and far beyond its boundaries. And the closer that Corbie comes to finding out who murdered Takahashi and why, the greater is the danger in which she puts herself.
There are hints throughout CITY OF DRAGONS regarding Corbie’s professional and personal past, providing intriguing material that will no doubt serve as at least partial grist for future volumes in the series. Stanley has also populated her mid-20th century San Francisco with other characters, quirky and otherwise, to keep Corbie in business for as long as she chooses.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 27, 2010