I’m not sure what online site first directed me to these historical novels, set in 19th century San Francisco, but I’m very glad I found them and glad too that the author is at work on the next book in the series. Written by a retired professor of US and Women’s History, and based on her doctoral work on late 19th century working women, these entertaining, character driven novels are an engaging amalgam of cosy crime with a little romance on the side. In addition, they are set at a fascinating time, within a milieu which is very nicely evoked by a writer who wears her research lightly. This is no mean feat. I’ve written historical fiction myself – am engaged on a historical novel right now – and the temptations of such research are legion, especially if you’re somebody who finds the process itself beguiling. One enticing discovery leads you onwards to the next until at some point, you have to stop and give yourself permission to fictionalise. But the best historical novelists are so immersed in their chosen time and place that they avoid the dangers of stodgily ‘bolted on’ research altogether and simply write as if they were there, taking the reader with them, and only including such details as are necessary for the story. Which is exactly what Locke does in both these novels.
The premise upon which they are based is fascinating for me, on this side of the Atlantic. 19th century San Francisco seems to have been a hotbed of ‘mediumship’ with a great many advertisements for their services in the local press, some of which Locke uses as chapter headings. There was, of course, a similar passion for spiritualism in Britain at that time. And many of these mediums and clairvoyants were enlightened women who supported causes like suffrage and the abolition of slavery.
The central character is a young widow called Annie Fuller. She is in possession of a small boarding house, which she runs with the help of a couple of loyal servants, but she is badly in need of an additional income. Due to a perfectly credible set of circumstances, she is an educated young woman, interested in and knowledgeable about finance. But at this time and in this place, she cannot possibly become a financial advisor. So, she sets herself up as a ‘clairvoyant’ instead. She doesn’t claim to commune with the spirits of the dead but, disguised as ‘Madame Sybil’, she offers advice. ‘The advice is actually based on my experience and skills in the world of business and finance, as well as a modest understanding of the human condition,’ she tells a friend who has asked for her assistance, in Uneasy Spirits. ‘Unfortunately, I found I was taken more seriously if I said I was aided in obtaining that advice from palmistry or astrology.’
She has built herself a client list which includes businessmen who – finding the ‘messages’ to be well informed and helpful – keep coming back to her for more advice. In Maids of Misfortune, a client dies in mysterious circumstances and because of her own regard for him, Annie is driven to investigate, facing considerable personal danger in the process. Uneasy Spirits focuses closely on the presumably widespread practices of fraudulent mediums, with an intriguing and delicately handled nod in the direction of the possibility of real communication with the Other World. Without including any spoilers, there is also a fascinating plotline which touches on a phenomenon which still puzzles us, even now. In both novels, headstrong Annie’s love interest, in the shape of Nate Dawson, a young lawyer trying to make his way in the world, is well handled as is the often turbulent relationship between them. Nate is a thoroughly likeable and vividly realised character in his own right. I like the way Locke’s characters move through what is a familiar landscape to them, but an unfamiliar one to many of her readers. The city is a very real presence, almost as though it were another protagonist, in both stories.
Personally speaking, my only stipulation when I’m reading and reviewing a novel is that I must believe in it. This has nothing whatsoever to do with reality or fantasy. I can read the most wild and off the wall fantasy, the most impossible romance, and believe every word of it. Conversely, I can read something firmly rooted in contemporary reality and believe none of it. Locke passes the belief test with flying colours. I just loved visiting this time and place in her company. If the holy grail of publishing is the convincing series, these are surely prime candidates. I want to know what happens to Annie and Nate next and I’m already looking forward to book three.
Find out more about M Louisa Locke