Review: No Pity for the Dead by Nancy Herriman

No Pity for the Dead by Nancy Herriman is the 2nd Mystery of Old San Francisco (Available August 2, 2016). 

She'd barely dipped her spoon into the mulligatawny when someone pounded on the front door.

“Not another patient at this hour!” Addie called out from the kitchen before hurrying though the dining room on her way to the foyer. “I'm turning them away, ma'am. You're closed.”

It wasn't a few seconds before she heard Addie scream. Celia jumped up and rushed through the parlor. 

“Stay there, girls,” she told Barbara and Grace, shutting the parlor doors on their startled expressions.

Owen Cassidy stumbled across the threshold, gasping for breath. He was covered in coal dust and dirt from head to toe; the only pale parts on him were the whites of his wide green eyes. 

“Och, lad,” chastised Addie. “Dinna even think of coming inside—”

“Ma'am! He's dead!” he cried, gaping at Celia. “He's dead!”

“What nonsense are you blathering?” asked Addie.

“The fellow in the cellar! He's dead!”

Celia Davies leads an interesting life. Newly arrived in San Francisco, the English nurse has only recently opened a free medical clinic for women and is often called out to attend to saloon girls, prostitutes, and immigrant mothers. 

Her wastrel husband, Patrick, disappeared over a year ago and is presumed dead. With the passing of her wealthy Uncle Walford, she also finds herself acting as guardian to her half-Chinese cousin, Barbara, in a time when anti-Chinese sentiments run dangerously high. She also has a knack for picking up lovable orphans, like the plucky Owen Cassidy.

Then, there are the murders she keeps getting herself mixed up with…

Yessiree—life in 1867 San Fran is never dull. 

This time around, Celia steps into the thick of it when the teenaged Owen inadvertently uncovers a body buried in the basement of his latest employers, a ruthless real estate group known as Martin and Company. 

The boy turns to his pseudo-mother for help, and she promptly summons Detective Nicholas Greaves, who proved so helpful in her last investigation. The fact that there's unresolved tension between Celia and Nick—exacerbated by her husband's uncertain fate—only further tangles the threads of the case.

When the list of suspects grows to include the husband of Celia's best friend, Jane Hutchinson, she's further dismayed to learn that there's already longstanding bad blood between Frank Hutchinson and Nick. Bad blood that stretches back to the Civil War, when the two fought for the Union, and to Frank's first marriage.

No Pity for the Dead is Herriman's second mystery set in Old San Francisco and starring incorrigible nurse Celia Davies. As with her debut, the story is rife with historical details and atmosphere—more than anything, it's the historical flourishes that make this such an entertaining read. 

The city itself is in the process of transforming into the iconic city we recognize today: cuts are being made through the rolling hills to facilitate roads and cable cars are only a handful of years away from dominating the transportation system.

As an immigrant herself, Celia's story mirrors those of her neighbors—the Italians, Irish, Chinese, and Mexican newcomers who turn San Francisco into one of America's biggest melting pots. Many of Celia's patients speak little English and look at outsiders with unconcealed distrust, and her relationship with cousin Barbara is made all the more fraught thanks to the city's violent attitude towards the Chinese. 

The Civil War is a painfully recent memory here, especially for former soldiers like Nick, who carries literal and emotional wounds from his experiences. 

“Mr. Greaves! Are you in there?” His landlady pounded on the door to his rooms. “You're wanted at the station right now.”

He scrubbed his hands over his face, a spasm of pain shooting through his left arm, down from the wound that never let him forget that day…

“Should I tell them you'll be at the station right away?” Mrs. Jewett asked through the closed door. There was no mistaking the concern in her voice, and he could picture the look on her face at that moment, the lopsided furrow she'd get in her forehead. She'd lost her only son at Shiloh and had transferred all of her motherly worries to Nick, the replacement for the boy who'd never come home.

What a replacement.

“Yes, tell them I'll be right there,” he replied. “Right there.”

Similarly recent is the California Gold Rush—but in an unexpected twist, Herriman chooses to zig rather than zag and has a significant plot point center around the fall-out from the silver rush and Comstock Lode in Nevada instead.

Jasper Martin turned his gaze on Nick. “It's Virgil Nash.”

“Do you mean the dead man?” Well, that was quick. “What makes you think so?”

“After I got here last night, I took a look at the body. The face… Was somewhat recognizable, and Virgil Nash was also missing the bottom portion of his right arm,” answered Martin. “From a mining accident up at the Comstock Lode, is my understanding.”

With Nick eager to pin the murder on longtime foe Frank, cousin Barbara angry about the constant disruptions to their lives and threatening to challenge Celia's legal guardianship, a patient on the verge of a premature birth, and her best friend begging her for help, our intrepid heroine has plenty on her plate.

What else can a woman do but see things through to the bitter end? Celia's made of stern stuff and refuses to let attempts on her life, Nick's advice, or abrupt news about her missing husband derail her. 

When it comes to fortitude, Celia's definitely an admirable lady. It'll be interesting to see what mess she rushes in to next.

 

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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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    Why corgis? The answer, which may resonate with parents, is that some friends had one in 1933 when Princess Elizabeth was seven years old, and she wanted one too.

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