"Bringing Victorian San Francisco to colorful life, Tallman offers an entertaining mystery…that will appeal to fans of Anne Perry and Rhys Bowen." —Library Journal
San Francisco, 1882. After enjoying an evening listening to the young Oscar Wilde, crusading young lawyer Sarah Woolson and her brother, Samuel, are making their way home when a gunshot sounds and a bullet pierces the fog, striking Samuel. Who could want to hurt Samuel? Was he even the intended target? Determined to find answers, Sarah discovers more murder and mayhem on Telegraph Hill.
With Death on Telegraph Hill, Shirley Tallman delivers an exciting whodunit with a trailblazing heroine in a time and place when a nice young woman was supposed to be found in the drawing room instead of the courtroom.
About the Author
SHIRLEY TALLMAN, the author of the Sarah Woolson mysteries, moved to San Francisco at an early age. She and her husband, Bob, live in Eugene, Oregon, where she works as a novelist and screenwriter.
Read an Excerpt
Death on Telegraph Hill
By Shirley Tallman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Shirley Tallman
All rights reserved.
A sudden gust of wind hit me full in the face, nearly causing me to lose my footing on the wooden steps leading up the east slope of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. Burrowing my head farther inside my hood, I hastened to catch up with my brother Samuel, who was several stairs ahead of me. He was obviously as eager as was I to be done with this precipitous climb.
It was a cold, clear evening late in March 1882. In addition to the gusting wind, the approaching dusk was making our hike up the Filbert Street Steps more arduous than if undertaken during daylight hours. Had I known what lay in store for us that night, the efforts of this ascent would have seemed very trivial indeed. But I am getting ahead of my story.
Our destination was the home of Mortimer Remy, a friend of my brother's and publisher of the San Francisco Weekly, a popular newspaper that often bought Samuel's crime articles. Mr. Remy had invited a group of local authors to meet the young Irish poet Oscar Wilde, who was touring the United States to publicize a book of poetry he had published the previous year.
At least that was the ostensive reason given for his visit. It was hardly a secret that the actual purpose of the trip was to tout the so-called Aesthetic Movement, which comprised artists, poets, and writers who argued that art need not be practical or useful, but should exist solely for its own sake. Mr. Wilde, the self-proclaimed champion of this philosophy, announced that it was his mission "to make this artistic movement the basis for a new civilization." Curious to meet the colorful personality, I had readily accepted Samuel's invitation to accompany him to the reading.
Tonight's clear view demonstrated how Telegraph Hill had received its name some thirty-two years earlier: it possessed an excellent vantage point for sighting ships entering the bay. In order to alert the town to these much-anticipated arrivals — bearing mail and necessary goods — a windmill-like structure called a semaphore had been erected atop the Hill. The contraption had long since disappeared, but its brief existence had permanently established the hill's identity.
Mortimer Remy's home was located on a narrow dirt-and-gravel street, perhaps more correctly labeled a "byway." It was a modest, gabled-roof cottage, probably dating from the late 1850s or early 1860s. Houses along this lane were all but impossible to reach by one-horse, sometimes even two-horse, carriages. A real estate man by the name of Frederick O. Layman had recently applied for a city franchise to run a cable car line up Telegraph Hill. Reportedly, Mr. Layman's ultimate plan was to construct an observatory atop the hill and required the cable car line to transport visitors to and from what was already being described, and ridiculed, as a "German Castle." If the cable car line was eventually built, Telegraph Hill's inhabitants would benefit from its convenience. On the other hand, it would almost certainly increase housing prices, which for now remained affordable because of the hill's unfriendly grade.
Mr. Remy himself opened the door and greeted us with hearty cheer, then led us into a front parlor where seats had been arranged to face the front of the room. Built into one wall was a large hearth, the crackling fire giving out rather more heat than I found comfortable. Opposite the fireplace was an ever-popular bay window, outside which I glimpsed a small copse of trees.
The parlor was simply arranged with functional, rather than decorative, furniture. About half a dozen people were already seated there, and our host directed us to a settee located toward the back of the room. Stephen Parke, a friend of my brother's and an aspiring writer, stood and smiled as we approached. He was a taller than average man in his late twenties, blessed with a head of curly brown hair, a fair complexion, and cheerful hazel eyes that twinkled as he assisted me into a seat beside him on the sofa.
"I'm charmed to meet you again, Miss Woolson," he said. He shook Samuel's hand, then sank back into his own seat.
"It is very good to see you, Mr. Parke," I replied, pleased we had been placed next to such an agreeable companion. "It promises to be an interesting evening."
"That's what I'm hoping, since I was unable to attend Wilde's lecture at Platt's Hall yesterday," he said. "Opinions about Wilde differ considerably."
Samuel lowered his voice. "Judging by the man's photograph in today's papers, he certainly is a distinctive-looking fellow."
"Not many men have the nerve to appear in public wearing turbans and knee breeches," said Parke with amusement.
My brother chuckled. "It makes good fodder for the newspapers. By the way, have you read his book of poems?"
"Not yet," Parke answered. "But I hope to purchase one tonight. I assume he'll bring copies."
This time Samuel laughed aloud. "Have you ever known an author who didn't drag around a trunk crammed full of his scribblings?" He had the good grace to look sheepish. "Not to say that I wouldn't behave the same if my own book were to be published."
"Not if, Samuel, but when it is published," Parke corrected.
"And your book as well, Stephen," said Samuel. "You're correct, we must remain optimistic."
"Yes, but your manuscript is nearly finished," Parke pointed out with a wry smile, "whereas mine is still in a very rough state."
Stephen Parke referred to the political treatise he was writing that dealt with San Francisco's frequently corrupt city administrations. The necessity to eat regular meals and keep a roof over his head, however, obliged him to sell articles to Remy's San Francisco Weekly, as well as to any other publications willing to accept his work. Parke lived farther down Telegraph Hill, as did a small colony of writers struggling to make their names in the literary world.
Even as I was pondering this, another member of that community was making his way over to speak to us. I had met Emmett Gardiner on several previous occasions, when I had accompanied Samuel to various literary functions. He was a tall, blond-haired man of thirty, with a strong, handsome face, steady brown eyes, and a genial personality. Emmett contributed regular stories and poems to The Californian, a literary periodical that had evolved out of the old Overland Monthly. I seemed to remember my brother telling me that Emmett, too, was writing a novel, although I could not for the life of me recall the subject matter.
"Samuel, Stephen," said Gardiner, shaking their hands with his usual good cheer. "And Miss Woolson, it is always a pleasure to see you. Did any of you attend Wilde's lecture at Platt's Hall last night?"
When we indicated that we had not, he went on, "Neither did I. Which was why I was delighted when Uncle Mortimer arranged tonight's reading."
"I keep forgetting that Remy is your uncle," Samuel said. "You don't sound anything like him."
"That's because he hails from Louisiana, while my mother, his eldest sister, moved with her family to San Francisco when I was just five. She still lives here in the city."
"That explains it, then," Stephen commented. "By the way, how is your book progressing?"
As the three would-be authors discussed their various projects, Tull O'Hara, who also lived on Telegraph Hill, entered the parlor. A short man in his fifties, he had a long crooked nose, critical gray eyes, and a perpetually dour expression on his weathered face. O'Hara worked for Mortimer Remy's newspaper, and although he was touted as one of the best typesetters in the city, he was even better known for his disagreeable personality. He certainly lived up to his eputation tonight, giving his employer the barest nod and studiously ignoring the rest of us as he took a seat behind our own.
"Who is that sitting next to Tull O'Hara?" I asked Samuel, nodding toward the large, ruddy-cheeked man frowning at the typesetter.
"Claude Dunn," my brother whispered, "yet another hopeful author. He spends his days writing while his wife, Lucy, the pregnant girl sitting next to him, cooks and cleans for anyone on the Hill who will pay her."
Discreetly, I examined the young woman seated beside her husband. She could not have been more than nineteen or twenty, but her sallow skin and straggly blond hair gave her the appearance of a much older, world-weary woman. I was shocked to note that despite the huge swell of her belly, the bony line of her shoulders was clearly visible from beneath her worn cotton dress. She should be at home tucked into bed, I thought indignantly, not forced to sit here in an overheated room, clearly fighting a losing battle to keep her eyes open!
Mrs. Dunn suddenly looked up, and loath to be caught staring, I hastily turned my gaze on a couple who were sitting in front of us. The man looked to be in his fifties and had a long, gray-streaked beard, dark eyes, and a yarmulke atop his balding head.
"That's Solomon Freiberg and his daughter, Isabel," Stephen informed me, following my gaze. "They live down the hill. Miss Freiberg teaches piano, and her father works as a diamond cutter."
Isabel Freiberg was remarkably pretty. She had a small oval face, creamy skin, intelligent brown eyes, and silky brown hair fashioned into a neat bun at the nape of her slender neck. Although she made a show of listening attentively as her father spoke to her, I noticed her steal several unobtrusive glances over her shoulder at Stephen. Just as interesting were the looks he returned when he thought no one was watching. Unless I was mistaken, those two shared more than a casual friendship.
Shortly after eight o'clock, Mortimer Remy strode to the front of the room, clearing his throat to attract his guests' attention. Our host was not an imposing man, but he possessed a steady brown-eyed gaze that co-workers boasted could burrow with uncanny precision into the heart of a story. Perhaps his most notable feature was a full head of white hair that curled about his face in disarray. By contrast, his shaggy eyebrows remained a dark brown, drawing even more attention to those penetrating eyes.
While Remy waited for the last whispers to quiet, I saw him suddenly grimace and touch the right side of his face. Looking closer, I noticed a slight swelling along his jawline ... from a toothache? I wondered. If so, the man had my sincere sympathy. Above all things, I dreaded the thankfully infrequent occasions when one of my own teeth caused me distress. There was so little one could do to alleviate the pain. Even my physician brother, Charles, was usually forced to resort to age-old remedies such as holding whiskey in the mouth or applying concoctions composed of red oak bark, camphor, cinnamon, or clove oil to the tooth and gum. Even then, relief was fleeting. The only permanent solution, of course, was to have the afflicted tooth extracted, a recourse even the heartiest of men dreaded!
Remy gingerly moved his jaw from side to side, then gave a labored smile. "Welcome, everyone. I am pleased you could join us this evening."
Despite his obvious discomfort, our host's voice was pleasant, carrying a strong flavor of the Deep South. I was aware that he had traveled to San Francisco from New Orleans a decade or so earlier and had brought with him a number of old world customs, including a penchant for long, and in my opinion disagreeable, green cigars and Zydeco music. Although I had met him only once or twice, I had come to appreciate his affability and easy charm.
"Tonight we are in for a rare treat," he continued, smiling at the tall young man who came to stand behind him. "Mr. Oscar Wilde, author of a recently published collection of poetry, and a forerunner in the Aesthetic Movement, has graciously agreed to meet with us here in my home for a more informal visit than his appearance last night at Platt's Hall."
Wilde smiled and executed a small, somewhat affected bow, which precipitated a murmur from the audience.
"Too utterly utter," came a man's low, sarcastic voice from behind me. There was a smattering of laughter, and I knew at once that the remark had come from Claude Dunn. Not that the comment was original; the expression had been reported with great humor in newspapers throughout the poet's American tour, along with other so-called Wildean expressions.
Mortimer Remy shot Dunn a censuring look, then turned his attention back to the guest of honor. "Considering Mr. Wilde's views concerning architectural design and household furnishings, I pray that he will overlook the many deficiencies to be found in my own humble abode. I entreat him to turn his attention instead to literary matters, commencing, if he will be so kind, with how he came to produce such a fine volume of poetry at the tender age of twenty-seven."
There was polite applause as the publisher stood aside to allow Mr. Wilde to take his place in front of the audience. I had, of course, read newspaper articles describing the Irish poet, but it was nonetheless startling to meet him in person. Wilde was already known across two continents as an opinionated dandy with a cutting, sometimes treacherous, wit. He had a long, somewhat fleshy face, full lips, and heavy-lidded eyes placed to either side of a prominent nose. Attired in a maroon velvet smoking jacket edged with braid, a lavender silk shirt, flowing green cravat, knee breeches, and black shoes with silver buckles, he looked as if he had just stepped out of an eighteenth-century French drawing room. A few muffled laughs once again rippled through the room, and Dunn made more acerbic remarks. Remy's piercing expression finally silenced the annoying man.
Whether or not he had come to Remy's house with the intention of speaking about the Aesthetic Movement, Wilde seemed happy enough to accede to the publisher's request that he confine his discussion to his literary efforts. Having produced a slim volume of the book, titled simply Poems, he commenced reading in a dull, rather nasal voice. I must say I found his manner surprisingly languorous, as if he were bored by the necessity to speak to us at all.
Wilde had been reciting for only a few minutes when his performance was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening. A moment later, an elderly woman in a wheelchair was rolled into the room. She was small and very wrinkled, her wispy white hair tucked beneath a black hat with a short black veil. She was wearing a black dress with ivory-colored lace at the neck and wrists and a simple mourning brooch pinned to her bodice. Despite her advanced years, she had bright blue eyes that appeared to miss nothing as they swept over the room. A muscular man in his fifties, dressed in dark livery and a battered gray felt cap, pushed her squeaky conveyance into the room. He had a craggy face and black eyes that looked out suspiciously from beneath bushy black-and-white eyebrows. A long scar ran from his right jawline down his throat until it was lost beneath his shirt collar.
"Who is that woman?" I whispered to Samuel.
"That's Mrs. Montgomery, a wealthy widow who lives in the large house at the top of the hill. I don't know the name of the man pushing her wheelchair, but —"
"His name is Bruno Studds," said Emmett Gardiner, leaning over so that he could address us in hushed tones. "And you're right, Samuel, Mrs. Montgomery is quite well-to-do. Her late husband owned the largest lumber business in the city. She's been a particularly generous benefactor to the writers living here on the Hill. It was she who financed the launch of the San Francisco Weekly when Uncle Mortimer founded it ten years ago."
"Doesn't she sponsor the Butter Ball Literary Competition each year?" I asked, referring to the much-sought-after literary award.
"She does indeed," Gardiner answered, his eyes dancing in the gleam of the room's gaslights. "Not only does the winner receive a sizable monetary prize, but Mrs. Montgomery publishes his book at her own expense."
"I've never understood what 'Butter Ball' stands for," I said.
"I've heard rumors that it was the name of her only son's favorite pony," Gardiner explained. "Lawrence was an aspiring writer who died quite young. A year or two after his death, Mrs. Montgomery established the award in his honor."
Our conversation was cut short as Mortimer Remy greeted the latest arrival. "Mrs. Montgomery," he drawled, his manners at their southern best, "I am so pleased that you could come. I regret any inconvenience it may have caused you."
Excerpted from Death on Telegraph Hill by Shirley Tallman. Copyright © 2012 Shirley Tallman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Why did this series end? I so want more!
I enjoy the Sarah Woolson series and hope to read more soon.