Ambrose Bierce, silver-tongued cynic of the Golden West, is not really the hero of this historical detective romance. The true protagonist is Tom Redmond, a budding scribe who narrates the story yet goes well beyond playing a typical Watson-like role. He falls in love, gets beaned on the head, involves himself in several other violent scrapes, learns a troubling Oedipal lesson, and travels back in time (and outward in geography, to Virginia City, Nevada) in order to dredge up the foundational sins of San Francisco. The saga that unfolds is less a yarn about crime and sleuthing than a bildungsroman, a tale of youth giving way to maturity—a narrative arc that applies not only to Redmond, but also to the great port city that he calls home.
What sets the story in motion are the “Morton Street slashings,” a murder spree that ultimately claims the lives of three prostitutes. (Morton Street, later renamed Maiden Lane and now known for shops that cater to the carriage trade, was once famous for its trade in flesh.) Yet that serial crime is merely a vehicle for entangling Redmond and Bierce, his gruff and acerbic mentor, in the driving forces of early Bay Area history. Those forces, in this telling, were sex, secrecy, status anxiety, and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Real figures from the time, including Mary Pleasant and Ina Coolbrith as well as Bierce, square off against fictional creations in events both actual and imagined. That mixture of fact and fancy makes for a light and lively romp, but at the cost of the full-bodied sense of “truth” that marks the best of both standard historical literature and pure fiction writing.