In this compulsively readable mystery, the hero is the historical figure Ambrose Bierce, William Randolph Hearst's star reporter and San Francisco's most celebrated writer at the turn of the twentieth century. Bierce is asked to investigate the disappearance of a Hawaiian princess attached to the entourage of King Kalakaua, who is slowly dying in the Palace Hotel's Royal Suite. As Bierce and his protégé, Tom Redmond, search for the missing princess, San Francisco plays host to a throng of Hawaiian royal courtiers and counselors embroiled in a swirl of political intrigue surrounding the successor to the throne.
Intelligent, gripping, and often very funny, this wonderfully tangled tale of murder and mystery is sure to satisfy.
"Oakley Hall has one of the finest prose styles around: tough, agile, but tinged with a sepia hint of gentlemanly elegance. It's a tool perfectly suited to bringing to life the San Francisco of the 1890s, at once gilded and rough hewn, brawling and refined." (Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay)
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Ambrose Pierce and the Death of Kings, Chapter 1
BELLADONNA, n. In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues.
-The Devil's Dictionary
Ambrose Bierce was at the height of his powers and influence at the time of the tragic Hawaiian affair, with his weekly newspaper column and his nationally admired short stories of supernatural events and the Civil War. He was a prince of San Francisco. Headwaiters sprang to his attention, bartenders bustled to prepare his favorite restorative, Pacific Heights matrons and pretty young poetesses vied for his favors. In his dealings with the opposite gender his motto was When falling into a woman's arms be careful not to fall into her hands.
He was described by Gertrude Atherton at about this time as "a tall man, very thin and closely knit, with sandy graying hair, a bristling mustache, beetling brows over frowning eyes, good features and beautiful hands." Atherton had had an unhappy meeting with him. A successful young California novelist with a good figure and a magnificent head of blond hair, she had come to visit the famous man in Sunol, where he was rusticating because of an attack of asthma. He told her that the covers of her last novel were too far apart, and that the genre was an inferior literary form. She responded that story writers were simply incapable of writing novels, and laughed triumphantly when she rebuffed his attempt to kiss her beside a pigsty. He grumbled that she had ruined his day.
That was Bad Bierce.
Good Bierce was her correspondent for twenty years, loyally praising her work in print and profferingprofessional advice. He also got her a job as a feminist columnist on the Examiner.
Bad Bierce was noisily scornful of the opposite sex: "Intellectually woman is as inferior to man as she is physically . . . she hasn't any thinker." But Good Bierce spent hours editing and emendating the verse his flock of not very talented young poetesses brought him.
He was the most brilliant satirist in the country, maybe in the world, maybe since Voltaire, but at this particular time he had no enemies worthy of his steel. In the past, civic and state corruption, especially the Southern Pacific Railroad and Collis B. Huntington, had challenged his indignations. When his resources were not fully engaged his column was reduced to scolding poets and evangelical ministers, "stretching butterflies on the rack," as was said of him. He was, just now, in a low ebb of outrage.
I was employed by the Chronicle, which was more respectable than Willie Hearst's Examiner, where Bierce's "Prattle" appeared in the Sunday edition. He had been my journalistic mentor, and he did not hesitate to criticize my published work. For instance, he disapproved of a piece on the Chinese slave girls that I had published in the Atlantic: "Your writing is meritorious, Tom, but I perceive that your motives are wrong," he told me. "You should write for the love of art rather than the purpose of helping repair God's botchwork world."
I was less interested in success in "art" than I was in helping to liberate the slave girls.
We had not seen as much of each other lately as we had when we were a team of detectives solving the infamous San Francisco playing-card murders. Bierce was separated from his wife and family, and his eldest son Day was a suicide in a love triangle so banal I knew the lack of common dignity must have struck Bierce almost as hard as the personal loss. I had offered him condolences over his tragedy, and he returned the favor over my own.
Before the princess disappeared, before the royal counsellor was murdered and the king died at the Palace Hotel, I met my true love, the Hawaiian beauty Miss Haunani Brown.
I was writing a magazine piece on San Francisco poets, especially Edward Berowne, who was being honored just then, and had called on him at his fussily fancy little house on Telegraph Hill that gazed north toward Alcatraz Island and the Marin hills. I did not know that his niece was visiting from Hawaii. Berowne was a fancy form of Brown, as the poet would be the first to laughingly tell you. His poetry and stories were published in the California Monthly, of which he was the editor.
Seated on his veranda, we were served tea by his houseboy, Chang. Berowne's thinning hair was so neatly brushed, the part looked like a chalk line. He had a large curved nose and profile, so that his face, framed by bushy burnsides, resembled that of a benevolent tortoise. He gleamed top and bottom, pomaded hair and shiny boots.
"The British have honored our P-p-poet of the Sierras, Joaquin Miller!" he said, waving his hands, palms up, as though presenting a prize. He went on, speaking at some length about Charles Warren Stoddard, whom he claimed to love dearly but clearly didn't like. His comments on his fellow poets always contained a barb. "You must meet my niece, Thomas," he said, in a change of subject. "She arrived from the Islands two days ago. This handsome young lady must b-b-be p-p-provided with p-p-proper admirers. Young men of style and fortune!" He had a slight stammer which I had come to realize he employed to capture the attention of his auditors.
"Well, that is not me, I'm afraid."
"Ha, ha!" he said. "She is half Hawaiian, you understand, alii, of course." I didn't yet know what the word "alii" meant.
"It refers to Hawaiian nobility, Thomas. The Hawaiians had a caste system the B-b-british understood full well! The alii were-are-the chiefs, chiefesses, and minor chieftans. There are p-p-princes and p-p-princesses as well. The nobles are larger in size, handsomer, and more intelligent than the lower classes of natives." He offered up his hands.
I saw a woman standing in the interior shadows. She came out onto the veranda, a tall figure proudly erect, a large young lady with a noble head of brown hair which she wore swept up as though to make herself appear even taller. Her gray silk gown was much embroidered and befrogged. She bowed her head to kiss her uncle's cheek while he beamed at her.
Startlingly blue eyes in a golden-brown complexion examined me as I rose to greet her. Her face was at once tense, amused, and bold. Her color made her look as though she were illuminated from within.
Introductions were made. This was Miss Haunani Brown.
She had an impressive figure, deep-breasted, narrow-waisted, full-hipped. She must have stood six feet tall! One eyebrow was cocked a quarter-inch higher than the other in what seemed to me to be a mocking of her role in her uncle's house, in San Francisco.
I asked if she would change her name to Berowne to conform with her uncle's. "Uncle hopes it will be changed to something else entirely, Mr. Redmond," she said. She had a warm contralto voice.
"That is simply not true, my dear. I ab-b-bsolutely decline the role of matchmaker!"
He winked at me.
He brought up the subject of the Hawaiian king, who was presently traveling in southern California.
"David Kalakaua is fond of travel," Miss Brown said. She had seated herself with one arm lying along the railing. Her tan hand with its tapered fingers and shiny nails was so perfectly formed it made the backs of my legs ache.
"And are you fond of travel, Miss Brown?"
"I am very new at it," she said.
Her uncle gazed at her as though he found her appearance fascinating. I found her fascinating also, with her golden skin, her lighter hair, her still lighter eyes with their expression of mischief.
"And you are a journalist, Mr. Redmond?"
I responded that I was a journalist.
"And I am to look for your writings in the Chronicle newspaper?"
That was also correct. "Has your uncle been exposing you to the sights of our city?" I asked.
"Yes, he has," Miss Brown said, with an arrogant cock of her head. "But he would be pleased if others would relieve his responsibilities." And so it was arranged that I would escort Miss Brown to the Cliff House for luncheon on Saturday.
When I returned to my rooms Signora Sotopietro was singing. She had been a famous diva, who now, fat and infirm, was living out her life in quarters adjoining mine. Her voice was still the voice of an angel, until it splintered into coughing.
After my wife's death I had moved from our cottage in Oakland to these rooms in San Francisco. When my neighbor's voice singing "Caro Nome" from Rigoletto sounded through the thin walls, sometimes I would go out, and sometimes stay in and sob over my loss.
I ate most of my dinners, alone, in Papa Franco's Italian Restaurant around the corner. There I could wind a yard of tagliarini around my fork while drinking red wine and reading a novel propped against the bottle. Tonight I stayed in, gripping my arms around my chest and luxuriating in grief while that angelic voice accompanied by her piano filled my heart.
The coughing fit inevitably came, and the song ceased, with a few notes more on the piano before silence.
On a sunny Saturday morning I transported Miss Brown to the Cliff House in a rented rig. There were many fine turnouts in the park, buggies and carriages moving slowly through congested crossroads. Miss Brown, who became Haunani to my Tom, was amazed at this traffic, the splendid matched pairs, the fancily dressed gentlemen and women in the buggies and carriages, the horsemen, the bicyclists by the dozen, the pedestrians in twosomes and groups. The sun flashed off glossy equine haunches and varnished wood. Tree shadows striped the tan earth of the roadway.
Haunani was outfitted in a jacket and skirt of changeable silk, and a white jabot that set off her complexion spectacularly. She was an inch taller than I even without her feathered hat. I understood that she carried her head high not in arrogance but because of the rude stares at her size and exotic coloring. At lunch we gazed out at the seals on their wave-slashed rocks. She was unimpressed by the gray slice of ocean beyond the rocks. Hawaii's Pacific was blue.
She could be one moment prickly and the next physically friendly, squeezing my arm when she was amused, or hitting my shoulder with her brown fist. She pushed aside my hand that had been held up to assist her to a seat for the ride back to the City.
In the buggy she sat upright and queenly, gloved hands clasped together at her waist.
"You must not be sensitive to people's stares," I told her. "You are a beautiful young woman."
She muttered something in the Hawaiian language. Then she smiled at me brilliantly. "Thank you!"
I enquired about her impressions of the young bachelors of San Francisco who had been provided by her uncle. I was able to joke with her about Berowne's role as matchmaker.
"These society swells are a flimsy lot," she said.
"No muscle. You have some muscle," she added.
I attended a gymnasium on Kearny Street where I performed exercises with Indian clubs and belabored a striking bag.
"I do not admire young gentlemen that I could take down in a wrestle," she said, chin raised scornfully.
"You are very strong?" I asked, although it was clear that she was. She grinned at me and made muscle-flexing gestures. "Strong and beautiful," she said, adding in pidgin, "You no mess wid me, haole!"
I said I wouldn't dare to mess with her.
"Unless I tell you to," she said.
Driving slowly homeward through the park, she told me something of herself. Her Hawaiian mother had died when she was a baby; she had been raised by her father, William Brown, and her uncle-then still plain Edward Brown-who were descended from a proud Virginia family. They had owned a plantation on the Island of Maui. When she was eleven her father's illness caused him to sell the plantation and move to Honolulu, where the two of them had been taken in by the sugar magnate Silas Underwood in his mansion.
She was sent to boarding school with other alii children, where she had been one of the hapahaoles.
As such she had been scorned by certain blood Hawaiians who played a role at the court, and, I came to understand, was sensitive about her color because some of the European and American society scorned Hawaiians.
"I know my dear uncle worries about my color," she said. "I know he loves me, but after all I am brown not white. He tells a story of a black person who was uppity with him, and how he put that person in his place. He does not remember that I am a brown-skin person when he tells me that story."
"I think every Southern man has such a story to tell," I said.
"He worries that his grand friends will scorn me."
I said when she married the son of a Comstock or railroad millionaire in the grandest wedding San Francisco had ever seen, no one would dare scorn her.
She gave me her self-deprecating, malicious grin.
Back in the City she wanted to see where I lived.
Fortunately Mrs. Gray had cleaned and straightened my rooms on Friday. Haunani stood gazing out the bay window down Sacramento Street. Then with a dramatic motion she swung around, stripped off her hat and almost flung herself down on the sofa, where one side of her face caught the dusty sunlight coming through the net curtains while her other cheek was in shadow. Like the two races of her own self, I thought.
Gazing at me with her brilliant eyes, she said, "Uncle tells me your wife has recently passed away."
Just the word made my throat constrict. I seated myself facing her. "That is true."
"Tell me about it, please." It was as though since she had told her story, I must repay with my own.
"Our child was stillborn," I said. "She was unable to recover from the tragedy." "I am so sorry," Haunani said. "It is the curse on the Hawaiian race also. The stillborn children. So many stillborn keikes!"
I heard the first notes of "Caro Nome" from the piano next door.
"She became very wild," I heard myself say. "She cursed everything, although she hardly knew how to curse. She-flung herself about. It became clear that she would not recover. There was a decline of some months before she died."
"I believe that is how my mother died," Haunani said, looking at her hands knitted together on her knee. "What was her name, please?"
"What a pretty name."
Signora Sotopietro began to sing, her voice low at first, then more loudly.
"What is that?" Haunani wanted to know.
"It is Signora Sotopietro next door."
"What a lovely voice!"
"Yes," I said.
"You are a Catholic by religion, Uncle says."
"In my religion it is already decided who will go to heaven and who will not," Haunani said in a hard voice. "It is no matter whether you are good or bad! Maikai! I will not go to heaven."
"Why?" I said.
"Heaven is for haoles."
"That is not true, my dear Haunani."
"That is my belief, my dear Tom."
I had not looked up at her for some time because my eyes had misted from the music that pervaded the room, filled it, overflowed. When I glanced at Haunani again she had removed her jacket. Her arms were round and golden. "You are weeping," she whispered. "Come!"
I rose with difficulty and went to kneel before her. She took my face in her two hands and pressed it to her bosom. "Aloha waiu," she whispered. Signora Sotopietro's voice ceased in coughing, with those last few sad notes from the piano.
Later Haunani announced that she was hungry, and I went out to the little stand on Powell Street for roasted chestnuts and opened a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. It was something that Catherine and I had done when celebration was called for. The next day I encountered my neighbor on the stairs, where, panting, she rested her weight on the railing. The yellowish locks of her wig were piled on her head, her face was tragically rouged and powdered, with raccoon patches beneath her eyes that could not be concealed by powder. Her bulk was hidden beneath a fine black scarf embroidered with roses, with which she had wrapped her bosom and shoulders. A hand crowded with sparkling rings clutched the stair rail.
"Good evening, Signora," I said.
"Good evening, young sir," she replied in her good English, for she could not remember my name.
I told her that I had very much enjoyed her singing last night, and she thanked me graciously.
In January King Kalakaua was stricken ill in Santa Barbara and transported to San Francisco, it appeared, to die.
He lay in the Royal Suite of the Palace Hotel, attended by aides, courtiers, counsellors, petitioners, creditors, and the finest San Francisco doctors. He had suffered a stroke, had been diagnosed with Bright's disease, and his kidneys were failing. On his deathbed he had not yet named his successor.
"David Kalakaua has many faults," Haunani said, reclining in my easy chair on one of her visits to me. "But he is loved by his subjects. Liliuokalani-his sister-is not loved so much."
"Is she his heir?"
"Unless he names someone else."
"Can he do that?"
"He is the king," Haunani said. "The Mainland was bad for him. Hawaiians should remain in Hawaii."
"I have good reason, my dear Tom."
I thought then that her good reason might not be merely the announced one of finding an appropriate husband.
The San Francisco newspapers followed the Merrie Monarch's decline. There was some interest in his little kingdom of half a dozen islands in the Pacific Ocean. I myself had become more interested in Hawaiian affairs.
Fortunes were being made by the owners and proprietors of the sugar plantations there. The most powerful of these was a descendant of the missionaries named Silas Underwood, who was often referred to as "Uncle Sugar." A cartoon in the satirical newspaper, the Wasp, depicted him as an octopus spreading its arms over islands in a blue sea with tentacles grasping fasces of sugarcane. Uncle Sugar was known to have supported the spendthrift and debt-ridden monarchy out of his own pocket for years.
Haunani referred to him as Uncle Silas, for she had been raised to young womanhood in his mansion in Honolulu called Hale Nuuanu.
From Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings by Oakley M. Hall, (c) September 2001, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, used by permission.
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In 1891 at San Francisco's posh Palace Hotel, Hawaiian King Kalakau lies dying in a suite. Apparently, much of the island elite, hanger-ons, and creditors have arrived not so much out of respect, but to gain an edge after His Highness dies. Most of the entourage and several local Americans like the Examiner¿s Ambrose Bierce debate whether the Unites States should annex Hawaii. However, the beloved Princess Leileiha has vanished, leaving the royal party in disarray. Sugar king Silas Underwood asks Bierce to find the missing Princess. Chronicle reporter Tom Redmond assists Bierce on his investigation. However, several individuals who would prefer Leileiha to not reappear including Redmond¿s amazonian half-Hawaiian girl friend Hounani Brown. Plus several other cases slow down the inquiries and the half-Hawaiian girl Redmond has begun to romance is also affected. The sequel to the highly regarded AMBROSE BIERCE AND THE QUEEN OF SPADES is an engaging historical mystery that is the Americanization of Holmes and Watson. The story line provides insight into the political and social climate of Hawaii and San Francisco during the early part of the Gay Nineties before the American annexation. The prime story line is exciting, but subplots involving unrelated scenarios to the missing princess theme slow down the novel even as it provides greater understanding of the era. Oakley Hall has written a pleasant tale that will satisfy sub-genre fans, especially those that prefer the historical setting to the mystery setting. Harriet Klausner