Chinawoman’s Chance (Portia of the Pacific Historical Mysteries) by Jim Musgrave takes us back to the bustling and somewhat lawless society of 1884 San Francisco. The Californian Gold Rush and the Railways have made San Francisco a place of wealth and power, but for certain sections of society, nothing has really changed. For women and for the Chinese immigrants brought to America by the Railway bosses to help build the railways, life is hard. Neither have any real rights in this America of the 1880’s. Championing the cause for women and the oppressed is the larger than life self-trained barrister, Clara Shortridge Foltz Esq. When a young ex-prostitute is murdered, flayed and eviscerated in the Chinatown district of the City, suspicion immediately falls on the Chinese Tongs that make up the ghetto that is Chinatown. Captain Isaiah Lees and his Sergeant must determine who is responsible and cut off any possibility of retaliatory action against the Chinese immigrants. Competing against the rival and corrupt Sheriff’s Department plus the City’s Mayor, Lees has his job cut out for him.
As a big fan of historical novels in general and historical mystery stories in particular, I found Jim Musgrave’s Chinawoman’s Chance (Portia of the Pacific Historical Mysteries) to be absolutely superb. As the first of a series of books based around the wonderful character of Clara Shortridge Foltz Esq. the author has set up a marketable and believable set of characters on which to build his series. Clara was clearly the star of the story, with her forthrightness and her willingness to take the patriarchal society on, at their own game. In the age of the suffragettes, Musgrave’s character was the perfect portrayal of the women who led the campaign for women’s rights all around the world. Her freedom and her owning of her own sexuality was rare among woman of the time. It was fascinating to look at the reaction of the politicians to the perceived growing threat of the “yellow menace”, as they termed it, with their heathen religions and beliefs, comparing that to today’s response with respect to Hispanic and Muslim immigration. The “Exclusion Act” and the “Muslim Ban” – not all that different, perhaps? This book appealed to me on many levels, but most importantly of all, it was a damn good read and an excellent mystery.