Alluring Gold Rush Mystery Offers Untold Story

One of the voices we don't often hear from the past is that of the so-called woman of ill fame. Sure, she shows up as the hooker with a heart of gold in every spaghetti Western ever made, but as for authentic voices, leave it to a historian to get the details right.

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Oakland writer Erika Mailman, known to readers of the Montclarion as the former editor and author of the "Looking Back" history column, and of books on the Oakland Hills and Oakland neighborhoods, did extensive research on prostitutes of the Gold Rush era before embarking on her novel.

The ring of truth underscores the main character, Nora Simms, in her earthy language and inner dialogue on the nature of mankind, menkind in particular. Mailman takes us on a tour of the San Francisco that was, with brothels and cribs for prostitutes, opium dens, abandoned ships, ne'er-do-wells and proper citizens who can't seem to resist vice. Tragedy abounds, whether it's a fire, poverty or back-alley murders. But it seems to be all in a days' work for Nora Simms, who seems to find a way out of every trouble with a knack for sussing out a bad situation and for attracting friendship in the unlikeliest quarters.

The flavor of old San Francisco is as salty and fresh as a loaf of sourdough, and the company Nora keeps is saltier still. But the story takes on a frightening turn when a string of murdered prostitutes turn up, when the police don't give a damn, and when Nora becomes a suspect herself and doesn't know who to trust. As the old saying goes, not all that glitters is gold, and not all that's gold glitters. Nora proves this time and again when her rough ways lead to a solution or an escape, and her friends show up in the nick of time.

All in all, a fun read with local flavor, and the pleasure of knowing the author, at least by reputation, merely adds to the pleasure. There's more in store from Mailman, however. Mailman's new novel, The Witch's Trinity, was published this month by Random House. It's the story of a medieval German woman accused of witchcraft when her village undergoes famine.

Woman of Ill Fame By Erika Mailman, (Heyday Books, 258 pps., $13.95; www.heydaybooks.com)

Julia Park Tracey is contributing editor for the Alameda Sun. E-mail her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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