I read a lot of books about San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! If you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on any book image will lead you to an independent book seller. Read on…

An inordinate number of my youthful hours were spent in the company of the mystery novel; Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers … I couldn’t get enough. Somewhere along the line, though, the fixation faded …

But it’s back.

I’ve discovered a series of detective novels that — in a “you got chocolate on my peanut butter!” kind of way — seem to have been written with me in mind:

The setting is 1890′s San Francisco, the lively heart of the Gilded Age. And the detective? None other than our own famously cynical wit-about-town, that brilliant literary misanthrope Mr. Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce.

See what I mean?

Just a minute: Ambrose who?

If the name of Bierce does not ring a bell, a lightning synopsis: after a distinguished but emotionally devastating Civil War military career, Bierce turned up (as so many do) in San Francisco. In the good company of other western literary upstarts (Sam Clemens springs to mind), Ambrose was published in a number of local journals (the Argonaut, the Wasp, etc), quickly earning notoriety for his black humour and caustic wit. “Bitter Bierce” was not one to suffer fools gladly, and was as quick with his tongue as with his pen.

When young Willy Hearst inherited the Examiner newspaper in 1887, one of his first acts was to hire the sardonic Bierce to write for the feisty rag. “Prattle”, as Bierce named his weekly column, gave the prodigiously talented Ambrose a platform from which to champion freedom and intellectual honesty — while tweaking the noses of those he judged hypocritical, vain, or corruptly powerful.

Bierce most famous work today is undoubtedly “The Devil’s Dictionary“, an arch tome featuring humorously barbed definitions of words that you only thought you understood:

BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters.

MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

DENTIST, n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.

POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

This larger-than-life American original vanished into Mexico in 1913, on a mission to join Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army … and was never heard from again.

Back to the books

It was a brilliant choice: Oakley Hall’s decision to install this curmudgeonly literary figure into not just one but two fields of genre writing (historical fiction / detective fiction) breathes new life into both.

The stories are revealed through the eyes of young reporter Tim Redmond*, who plays a sort of Watson to Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic Sherlock Holmes. Bierce’s principal tools of detection are his enormous intellect and scathing distrust of human nature, and each chapter begins with a definition from the “Devil’s Dictionary” appropriate to the nefarious activity to come.

In a daring departure from standard book review procedures, I’m not going to trouble you with the stories! Oh, the novels are plotted tightly enough, including plenty of action and the requisite twists and turns — they’re absorbing, intelligent, and often funny.

The true pleasures of these novels, however, are to be found in the generous inclusion of TRUCKLOADS of subtle period flavour and details. Oh, the details!

Historical fiction is a tricky business. In pursuit of accuracy, it’s all too easy to create work that’s bone-dry and textbook dull. At the other extreme are romance novels possessing even less authentic connection to their settings than they do literary merit!

Oakley has walked this dangerous path with apparent ease. His San Francisco is a gritty and very real place. The characters are natural without dropping into either period caricature or modern parody. The dialogue is crisp, peppered with sufficient Golden Age vocabulary to keep things real, without unnecessary distraction. Historical headlines and actual events are sewn neatly into the fabric of each storyline, serving to build character and advance the plot. In fact, my professional curiousity had me constantly dropping the novels to research his myriad references — did such-and-such person actually exist? Could that event have actually happened? Was that a legitimate newspaper article? The answer was almost invariably ‘yes’.

“Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks”

“One-Eyed Jacks” happened to be the first volume of Hall’s series that I picked up — here are a few of the very real characters woven into just one book: dashing young publisher William Hearst and his scandalous mistress Tessie Powers; Hearst’s mother Phoebe, fierce controller of the family fortune; Mammy Pleasant, voodoo priestess and powerful puller of strings; Annie Laurie, beloved and controversial red-headed proto-Gonzo journalist; and the list goes on. Chinese “Highbinder” assassins, the Portuguese colony in Sausalito, the bustling valley town of Sacramento, restaurants, music halls, opium dens, the Palace Hotel …

And there are four other books in Hall’s straight flush!

Oakley Hall, Literary Icon

I’d never heard of Mr. Hall before stumbling onto this series, but just a couple of pages were enough to suggest that this guy was no hack. His vivid evocation of the sights, sounds, and oft-disturbing odors of the old City plunges you right into its midst, and his mastery of plotting and dialogue I’ve already mentioned. The man is an artist.

It was only after finishing the first book, though, that I discovered that Oakley Hall was a major presence on the Western literary scene — something which I suspect drew him to Bierce in the first place, as a kind of kindred spirit.

I say “was” a presence, because he passed away just a month ago — in an unhappy coincidence, precisely while I was reading these books. Hall’s obituaries invariably describe him as a serious and gifted author, the inheritor of Wallace Stegner’s Western literary mantle.

From the San Francisco Chronicle — May 16, 2008:

“With the death of Oakley Hall on Monday, the Bay Area — and, by extension, the United States — lost one of its greatest champions of literature.

“Novelist, librettist, instructor and administrator, Hall, who lived a robust 87 years, maintained an influence much larger than his characteristic modesty would suggest. He wrote more than 20 books, nonfiction and fiction, many of which were revered in a hot-eyed, proselytizing way by fellow writers who saw in Hall’s work a complete command of the craft. His fifth novel, “Warlock,” for instance, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1958, earned the pulpit-pounding praise of Thomas Pynchon, who called it “one of our best American novels.”

“Hall helped set up not one but two literary institutions – the writing program at UC Irvine, where he was the director for 20 years, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which he co-founded in 1969 — whose alumni (Michael Chabon, Richard Ford, et. al.) have seen their work land on the pages of top magazines, glide their way up national best-seller lists and pocket such honors as the Pulitzer.”

Should you read them?

If you’ve been paying attention, you already know the answer.

Oakley Hall’s five-volume Ambrose Bierce series represents the small foray of a literary giant into genre fiction, and frankly, it’s a lucky break for us that he decided to go slumming. I can’t recommend these books highly enough.

Read ‘em … you won’t regret it. Check at your local independent bookstore, or click to order your own copy from Powells Books online. (books listed in chronological order)

*Incidentally, I can’t help wondering if Redmond was named in tribute to the executive editor of today’s Bay Guardian, TIM Redmond. What do you think?