Fresh Meat: Death on Telegraph Hill by Shirley Tallman

Death on Telegraph Hill by Shrley TallmanDeath on Telegraph Hill by Shirley Tallman is the fifth historical mystery featuring Sarah Woolson, an attorney in 19th-century San Francisco (available October 16, 2012).

For a man who has been dead for over 112 years, Oscar Wilde certainly gets around!  Not only is he the star of his own mystery series by Gyles Brandreth, he makes an appearance, in full regalia of the Aesthetic movement—knee breeches, lavender silk shirt, green cravat, and maroon velvet jacket—dripping bons mots right and left in Shirley Tallman’s new mystery, Death on Telegraph Hill, letting readers know that they are in for a wild ride. 

….but Wilde cut him off. “After all, life is too important to be taken seriously, don’t you agree? For myself, I make it a point to avoid arguments; they are always vulgar and all too often convincing.”

The year is 1882, the city is San Francisco. After enjoying an evening listening to Oscar Wilde on his first American tour, 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. But attempted murder is not Sarah’s only problem. The local chapter of the SPCA has hired her to stop a bullfighting ring from being built in the Mission District of the city. Struggling to keep her law practice alive, Sarah takes on their case despite her misgivings about whether she can actually win and about her client’s reluctance to hire a female attorney.

Enter Ricardo Ruiz, the arrogant and oh-so-handsome man who wants to bring bullfighting back to San Francisco. Even Sarah, the oh-so-sensible attorney, is not immune to his charms.

I left off further speculation when a darkly handsome gentleman entered the room. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties and was obviously of Latin heritage. He was dressed impeccably in dark brown trousers and a tan day coat, with a colorful cravat tied flamboyantly about his neck. He was nearly six feet, I judged, and was possessed of a slender but well-toned build. His curly black hair was unfashionably long but neatly combed and worn beneath a stylish top hat. After little more than a cursory inspection of these details, however, I was drawn to the man’s eyes: they were very dark and intense, and heavily framed by long black lashes. His eyebrows were thick and gently arched, his nose slightly hooked, which gave it a roguish look and prevented it from appearing too feminine. His lips were well shaped and full; indeed, I blush to say this, but the only term that seemed adequately to describe them was “sensual.”

But then he opens his mouth and ruins everything.

“Señorita Sarah Woolson? But you are una mujer bella! I must ask myself why a lovely young woman like yourself would make a claim so imposible. An attorney, of all idiocies! When I was informed of this, I vowed to see for myself. Now that I behold your beauty, I find the charade even more atroz.”

Tsk, tsk, that was so the wrong thing to say! His macho posturing and caveman attitude just makes Sarah even more determined to find a way to help her clients. If only she can stay alive long enough to do so. On a visit to Telegraph Hill to inquire after the health of a recently orphaned baby, Sarah finds her own life in danger.

The afternoon sun was fading rapidly by now. Anxious to take my leave of Telegraph Hill, I walked a block or two down the muddy road, then took what I thought would be a shortcut through a small grove of trees. Suddenly, the quiet around me was shattered by a loud bang. My brain barely had time to register it as the same noise I’d heard the night Samuel was shot when the trunk of a nearby tree exploded. Shards of bark flew in all directions, scaring off a trio of goats that were grazing in a neighboring field and striking me painfully in my face and neck.

I’ve often wondered why more historical romances and mysteries are not set in the City by the Bay. San Francisco is both romantic and sinister at the same time, the ever present fog, the Barbary Coast, the Gold Rush, and the coming of the Union Pacific railroad linking the West and the East. In Death on Telegraph Hill, San Francisco is as much of a character as the living, breathing ones that populate the story. Sarah Woolson is no ordinary young woman; she’s one of three women licensed to practice law in the state of California. Despite the well-meaning warnings of her family and friends, including the dashing Scotsman Robert Campbell, Sarah has amazing perseverance; one might even call it stubbornness, when it comes to finding out the truth.

I enjoyed Sarah’s close relationship with her brother Samuel; her friendship with Fanny Goodman, who has a shop downstairs from Sarah’s office; and Eddie, the street urchin who drives a cab. Then there is her budding but reluctant romance with Robert Campbell who has her questioning her decision to forgo romance and marriage completely in favor of her career. I suspect that it will be a rocky road for the two of them. While Robert respects her skills as an attorney, he is also overprotective when it comes to Sarah sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong.

This is the fifth book in the Sarah Woolson mystery series and I’m now dying to buy the first book in the series to get to know Sarah from the start. Fortunately, Tallman gives the reader just enough backstory to enjoy the current mystery without stopping the action. Like Eddie taking the corners in his brougham, Death on Telegraph Hill is a fast-paced whodunit from the first page to the last with a fascinating heroine and enough historical tidbits to make this history lover happy.

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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon loves to write about Scandalous Women and the men that loved them. Her first book, Scandalous Women, was published by Perigee Books in March 2011. Visit her at

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