Ann Parker’s What Gold Buys came out last month, the fifth book in her captivating Silver Lies mystery series set in the high-altitude Old West town of Leadville, Colorado, in the early 1880s. If you haven’t heard of Ms. Parker or her work, now’s the time to ante up and go all in. Leadville isn’t exactly lawless, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so; the authorities are easily led astray and it’s the most dangerous place this side of Deadwood. Leadville’s silver mines attract all sorts of unsavory prospectors and business folk, and the red-light district is there to feed their after-dark needs. Smack in the middle of this moral gray area sits the Silver Queen Saloon, bridging the gap between respectable and not-so-much. Why not set a spell and learn why this series should become your next addiction?
Despite the era, the books have a feminist bent. The books are centered on smart, tough-as-nails Inez Stannert, a grifter-turned-saloon owner who runs a semi-legal card game in the saloon’s upper sanctum. Having been cut off from her wealthy family back east after eloping with her shady husband, Mark, Inez now finds herself wondering if her family was right about him. Each book contains a different murder mystery, backlit by the suspicious disappearance of Inez’s husband. Though she has no intention of remarrying (and thus losing her independence), she’s currently being romanced by an attractive, possibly dangerous newcomer, Reverend Sands, who may have come to town under false pretenses.
A diverse ensemble cast fills out the books. Inez’s saloon co-owner Abe Jackson, a black man torn between loyalty to Mark and loyalty to Inez; the successful and mischievous brothel madam, Frisco Flo, and her prostitutes; surveyors looking to strike it rich; and real-life outlaws and political figures such as Bat Masterson and general Ulysses S. Grant guarantee there’s never a dull moment.
Parker has clearly done her research. The author’s ancestors apparently lived in Leadville, and include a blacksmith and a gandy dancer, so reading the books is a fully immersive experience and a true escape from the modern world. You’ll practically be able to taste the homemade biscuits offered up by Mrs. O’Malley at the Silver Queen, smell the muck and filth from the State Street boardwalk, and feel the stiff fabric of the “Sunday best” polonaise, petticoats, and dresses worn by the women of the time.
Truths about the era are nuts, er, I mean fascinating. PTSD from the Civil War plagues the men who lived through it. Railroad saboteurs run rampant. Mysterious fires, deadly duels, impersonations, fakery, quackery, and con artistry abound. Horrifyingly, bacteria is considered a theoretical concept at best, so doctors reuse bandages and medical equipment without washing them first, and Cherry Pectoral containing morphine and alcohol is given to infants. You’ll be shocked by several tidbits of American history, delivered in organic, tantalizing doses alongside the murders and mayhem.
The whodunits are clever and plausible. In Silver Lies, the series’ opener, Inez is compelled to find out the truth about local assayer Joe Rose’s death, seeing as his body was left right outside her place of business. Its sequel, Iron Ties, concerns the near-murder of Inez’s friend Susan, a local photographer. Leaden Skies tackles politics, prostitution, fire insurance, and women’s suffrage. Mercury’s Rise finds Inez investigating the possibly bogus Miracle Waters of Manitou. What Gold Buys concerns the death of a soothsayer. Taut and perfectly paced mysteries are one of the series’ biggest strengths.