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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Review: Maids of Misfortune by M. Louisa Locke

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Author: M. Louisa Locke
Copyright: Dec 2009 (CreateSpace); 336 pgs.

Series: #1 in A Victorian San Francisco Mystery
Sensuality: N/A
Mystery sub-genre: Historical Cozy

Main Character: Annie Fuller, a liberated woman ahead of her time
Setting: 1879 San Francisco

Part of a Challenge: Historical Mystery Reading Challenge

Obtained book through: Purchased

It's the summer of 1879, and Annie Fuller, a young San Francisco widow, is in trouble. Annie's husband squandered her fortune before committing suicide five years earlier, and one of his creditors is now threatening to take the boardinghouse she owns to pay off a debt.

Annie secretly supplements her income by giving domestic and business advice as Madam Sibyl, one of San Francisco's most exclusive clairvoyants. I loved this part of the story. Annie was raised by a single father who was a highly regarded financial wizard and taught her well. But as a woman nobody would be asking her advice on investing, but as Madam Sibyl she can advise them in a manner they willingly accept.
At one time this room had been a gloomy back parlor where her Uncle Timothy had retired with his port after Sunday dinner to smoke his cigar and subsequently snore away the long afternoons.  Annie had remodeled it by having a small entrance cut from this room into the larger parlor in front, installing a washstand and mirror in on corner and replacing the horsehair sofa with a small desk and book shelves.
 Annie stood in front of the washstand and began a curious morning ritual.  First, she liberally dusted her face with a flat white powder that rested in a box on the top of the washstand, effectively erasing all signs of the freckles sprinkled across her nose.  Then she dipped the little finger of her right hand into a small tin containing a sticky black substance, which she applied liberally to her eyelashes, normally the same reddish-gold as her hair.  Using her middle finger, she transferred a minute quantity of rouge from another tin to her lips, turning their usual soft pink into a strident scarlet.  After washing the black and red stains from her hands with the rough soap she kept by the washstand, she bent and opened the cabinet door under the stand and removed a disembodied head.

She placed this apparition, a be-wigged hairdresser's wooden form, on the stand.  After tethering her own braided hair securely with a net, she carefully lifted the mass of intricately intwined jet black curls off the form and pulled it snugly onto her own head.  The transformation was startling.  Her eyes seemed to grow instanly larger, turning from the color of heavily-creamed chocolate to the deep rich hues of coffee, taken black...

Then, after putting the mute, scalped hairdresser's form away, she draped a silken shawl of scarlet and gold over her severe black dress and opened the parlor door to the front parlor, where she would spend the rest of her day at work, not as Annie Fuller, the respectable, widowed boardinghouse keeper, but as Sibyl, one of San Francisco's most exclusive clairvoyants. 
But one of Madam Sibyl's clients, Matthew Voss, has died. The police believe his death was suicide brought upon by bankruptcy, but Annie, as his financial adviser knows he was doing very well and that his investment documents have coincidentally disappeared when he died. She is convinced it was foul play.

Nate Dawson, the Voss family lawyer, meets Annie upon investigating why Mathew Voss left Sibyl money. He reluctantly begins investigating alongside Annie, a woman who alternatively attracts and infuriates him as she shatters every notion he ever had of proper ladylike behavior while being attracted to her. This historical mystery set in the foggy gas-lit world of Victorian San Francisco is a complete package of a modified locked room puzzle, more than one murder, daring undercover snooping, romantic tension and a few twists and turns for a powerhouse of a debut novel.

When I finished this book I immediately missed Annie and the other characters, showing just how well they had been brought to life and, dare I say…memorable. The mystery was well plotted so I went down the wrong path along with the police at first. The setting of Victorian San Francisco and period details are rich and layered, easily woven in the overall story from the attitudes towards Chinese and class divisions to the strict propriety rules restricting women. The journey back in time seemed so complete I felt jarred if pulled back into the modern world when my reading was interrupted.

The climax and revealing of the murderer was tense and an edge-of-your-seat ordeal where Annie is in very real danger. The ending was satisfying and I put the book down smiling at the wrap-up. I had just stumbled upon this delightful book as I cruised Amazon’s suggestions and I am so glad I found it. I heartily recommend this book for historical mystery or cozy fans. I think you will find it captivating.

For you convenience, you may purchase your copy here.

Shortly I will have an interview with the author of Maids of Misfortune and a book giveaway!

To help you get into the Victorian San Francisco environment, here is a video showcasing the historic Queen Anne Hotel:

This charming boutique hotel filled with one-of-a-kind antiques and treasures in a landmark Victorian mansion and prior girls' finishing school is a blast-from-the-past. Many antique touches adorn this historic family-owned hotel: from antique cast iron stoves, to original plaster ceiling medallions to stained glass windows, this historic property has been beautifully preserved and adapted.  Enjoy. Oh...and did I mention, it is rumored to be haunted.

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