Nine years after San Francisco’s great earthquake and fires, the city is just beginning to be reborn and is full of possibility. The World’s Fair is opening to herald the completion of the Panama Canal and display exciting wonders and the promise of the new technological age.
Yet the primitive past haunts the city’s renaissance. Leaving a trail of brutality, a murderous fanatic secretly stalks one of the fair’s chief attractions: the brilliant mesmerist James “J. D.” Duncan. Homicide detective Randall Blackburn and his adopted son, Shane Nightingale, must combine their intuitive profiling skills deductive techniques to solve a murder that hasn’t happened yet . . . one that only its terrified intended victim can see coming.
Praise for Anthony Flacco’s The Last Nightingale
“Flacco imagines the chaos [of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake] in precise and vivid detail while contributing his own distinctive narrative touch.”
–The New York Times
“Gripping . . . [Flacco’s] screenwriting talent shines in this story of the earth’s destructive power and humanity’s moral depravity. . . . Dickens meets Hannibal Lecter. Brace yourself.”
“A frightening and haunting picture of a ruined city staggering back to reality.”
–The Washington Times
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Read an Excerpt
January 25th, 1915
The Pacific Majestic Theatre—San Francisco’s Finest
The famed mesmerist James “J.D.” Duncan paced backstage, practicing his And Now You Are Hypnotized! glare, the one that people recognized from his posters and always wanted to see in person. Each time he passed over the thin crack in the floor that ran across the backstage area, he carefully adjusted his stride to hit it on the middle of his boot sole. At a moment when his confidence needed to be at its peak, it reinforced his faith in himself to tempt the stage gods with an arrogant disregard for stepping on cracks.
At least the boys in the stage crew had followed their strict instructions, this time: clear the backstage floor of any obstacles, then leave the “Master of the Secret Powers of Mesmerism” alone to pace and concentrate, prior to the show.
J.D. sipped away on his customary preshow tea, to warm up the old throat. But he still felt thirsty, dried out even, while he strode back and forth in the darkness.
He paused to listen in on the announcer, who was busily warming up the crowd like a man in love with his own voice. The house was packed with over a thousand of the city’s most elite residents, so the silver-tongued devil out there was taking forever to get around to the introduction. J.D. hated it whenever some local blowhard master of ceremonies sapped the energy out of the folks before the star of the evening arrived onstage. It sometimes forced him to use up half his show on audience humiliation gags, just to get them stoked back up to a workable energy level.
It occurred to him then that he was feeling extremely annoyed over tonight’s delay. His fingernails dug into his clenched fists. He could sense the urge to action, deep in his muscles, and he thought what a welcome relief it would be to feel the announcer’s cheekbones crush beneath his knuckles.
Then, abruptly, as if with the flick of an electric light switch, he found himself full of strange sensations. His skin began crawling with anxiety, ready to break out in a heat rash. This was odd, on a winter evening, backstage—where no heaters were permitted.
An unpleasant vibration came from somewhere deep in his skull; he was grinding his teeth, biting down hard. He forced his jaw muscles to relax, but within seconds his teeth were clenched again.
When a slight movement caught the far corner of one eye, he whipped around in reflex and found himself facing the backstage fire door. The exit led to the back alley, next to the trash bins. It seemed as if the door clicked back into place just as he turned around to face it.
But someone leaving? Unlikely. Civilians were not allowed back there. And who in the crew would leave by the backstage fire door when a show was under way, and risk being heard out in the house? Nobody who wanted to keep his job.
So he had believed. Now his heartbeat boomed inside his chest. Duncan told himself to relax. But before he completed the thought, another bit of motion caught at the corner of his eye, from the other side. This time, there was nothing there.
That made him wonder if he had just imagined the first one, whatever it was. He could not be certain now.
His sense of anxiety grew worse. His body was an electric motor fed with a steadily increasing flow of current. He had no way to turn it down. His skin broke into a hot sweat and a second flash of body heat took him by surprise.
This never happened before a show. James “J.D.” Duncan was always cucumber cool under pressure; it was how he kept ahead of the folks.
He took the last quaff of the tepid tea, but instead of calming him, it burned him inside. The feeling of heat radiated through his gut and gathered in his bones. His body seemed to gain ten degrees of temperature in that single swallow. He felt as if he must be glowing in the dark.
Only then did he realize that he was pacing in a furious circle, with his footsteps barely covered by the droning announcer onstage. The man cruelly pontificated about the evening’s cause for celebration: “San Francisco’s First Intercontinental Telephone Line—All the Way to New York!”
Still, J.D. knew that the folks out there, born high or low, were all waiting for him, right where he wanted them, needed them to be. Every single one of them had come hoping to be amazed by this new American phenomenon of public hypnosis. Despite any worldly poses that an individual audience member might strike, he knew that every one of them hoped that ol’ J.D. really would deliver just as it was promised in the advance ballyhoo—and that his spells would truly Give Strength to the Weak!
Thus the folks came primed to expect hypnotic spells with the power to tap each individual’s essential life force and “open it like a valve in a pipeline!” Tonight—as on every performance night—J.D.’s bubble of a reputation would only survive to the extent that he successfully walked the tightrope between what people would barely tolerate and what they would reject outright.
At least the tightrope was wide. After all, the new century was promising that the 1900s would bring an age of scientific miracles. Such things seemed to be emerging in every direction. Why, in less than a month, the entire world would be focused upon the city of San Francisco, freshly reborn after the devastating Great Earthquake and fires of 1906. Soon, because of the coming world’s fair, the Pan-Pacific International Exposition, the new city would be ablaze with all the fanciest wonders of the technological era.
Everybody in the audience had arrived at the theatre with their disbelief already surrendered, primed to witness unusual things. They all knew that their young century was entering a time of great expectations. To mesmerize such people did not involve any penny-ante sleight of hand; the skill probed much deeper than that. J.D. knew that good mesmerism was truly sleight of mind.
Even the hardnoses in the audience lived in the same world as everybody else, and each one carried his own expectations of encountering the next man-made eyepopper on any given day. The power of that very sense of expectation was the raw clay of J.D.’s work. How fine it was to be up there on that stage, invisibly sculpting the folks’ sense of social inhibition, then standing back and watching their bodies happily dance along, released.
He jerked—startled—as another bit of motion caught his attention. It was as if a shadow darted past. He whipped around to confront the source but again found nothing. This time the sense of frustration made him cringe.
J.D. searched for a reason to remain calm, assuring himself that these sensations did not necessarily mean he was coming down with some sudden illness. They even seemed suspiciously familiar, an exaggerated version of those slight visual anomalies and odd sensations that he had experienced on a few rare occasions.
It only happened back in the beginning, when he got careless in his measurements and took a bit too much of the elixir. Experience soon taught him that a few extra grains could be enough to make the dose feel excessive.
But tonight, an overdose of the elixir, even a pinch, was impossible. He had never taken it before a show. Never.
J.D. checked the announcer’s patter again. Finally, the man was nearing the point of calling out his introduction. But now it was a different sense of urgency that overwhelmed him; he had to know what was happening to him before he faced a crowd of a thousand of the city’s elite.
He fled to his dressing room, just a few yards down the hall, but he stopped cold in the doorway. He stood staring into the room, toward his dressing table, where there was a dire message spelled out by the objects placed there. Its meaning was as threatening as a graffito scrawled in blood.
His fine leather pouch, the one filled with the precious powdered elixir—it was sitting out. Right there in the open. The godforsaken thing was smack in the middle of the tabletop, in front of his makeup mirror!
This was also an impossibility. He never left the elixir sitting out, anywhere.
Worse: A little of the powder had been spilled about the bag itself and onto the table. Who on earth would spill it like that, wasting it? And why had they expected him to have it, in the first place?
Is it the Germans? Do they want it back?
His stomach lurched; somebody had found out about his secret hiding place. Not only that, they had been foolish enough to get their hands on a medicinal substance like this one, only to abandon their big find. This was no casual robbery. He had been invaded by someone who realized on some level that J.D. could not pursue the matter with the police—that would compromise his need for secrecy regarding the elixir. More importantly, it could reveal the condition that made it necessary for him. His image would become a joke.
Whoever had done this, he felt certain that they understood little or nothing about the substance. They would have stolen it, otherwise. And if they didn’t know what it was, why would they load my tea with it? What could they gain by any of it?
With that grim question, J.D.’s own logic confronted him. He felt his spirits plummet. The conclusion was terrible but true, like his mirror reflection on a hungover morning, and it left him with a single, ugly conclusion.
Nobody could have done this except for him.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is another summer book I picked up at a hospital book sale; the description sounded interesting and you can't argue with a book that costs .50 cents. I read it fairly quickly; it's an engaging and fast read, although to be honest, it doesn't exactly stand out. Billed as "historical fiction," the story takes place in San Francisco at the turn of the century. 1915, to be exact, 9 years after the Great Fire and also 9 years after the events of the first book (which I didn't read). The events focus on a police detective, Randall Blackburn, and his two adopted children, Vignette and Shane Nightingale. Det. Blackburn is assigned to guard a mesmerist, James "J.D." Duncan, in town performing for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. (First off, let me say that nearly every time Duncan is mentioned by the characters, they refer to him as "Duncan." No one in the book ever calls him J.D., yet that ridiculous name is printed out, in full, way too often. I know it's petty to mention, but I found it annoying. Did Flacco not have an editor?) In any case, the historical fiction title is pounded home with a lot of talk by the characters about the newest thing, the telephone, and how much they all hate it and don't think it's a technology that will last. Besides that, and some detailed descriptions of Vignette's clothes, you won't get much more in the way of history. The story itself is straight forward, deals with a stalker, methamphetimines and Alzheimer's, and is a nice, light mystery story. I found some of the dialogue between characters as well as their various internal thoughts to be kind of trite and unimaginative. As I mentioned earlier, it's an easy, fun enough read, perhaps more of a novella than a novel. Take it along to the beach and you won't be disappointed, but you might not find yourself remembering much about it either.