Ghosts, Murder, and History, Oh My

Seriously gorgeous cover.

Seriously gorgeous cover.

This review was originally posted at Fantasy Literature.

Delia’ Shadow, Jaime Lee Moyer’s first novel, is a fun and light read highly recommended for anyone who just wants to see a hard-edged detective solve a murder mystery while falling in love, with ghosts and Edwardian outfits as excellent window dressing.  If that sounds satisfying, then Delia’s Shadow is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  The characters fall into well-worn but very likable categories, the mystery-solving proceeds in neatly-ordered steps, and the romance is sweetly predictable.

Within the first few pages, we’ve met Delia Martin and her Shadow.  Delia is a mousy young schoolteacher who goes home to San Francisco to deal with a ghost that haunts her.  She reunites with her foster-sister there, a charming socialite who shamelessly schemes to find Delia a good, upstanding young man.  But, oh, what luck!  Sadie sets her up with a handsome young homicide detective named Gabe who’s investigating a string of ugly murders.  With the assistance of bitter and flirtatious spiritualist—who is easily the most compelling character in the book—the two set off to solve the mystery.

I’m not an expert on mysteries and crime novels, but I’m fairly sure that the plot of Delia’s Shadow has been seen once or twice before.  A bitter detective obsessed with a string of murders, who often mentions things like “rookie mistakes” (35)?  Who then meets a young woman connected with the murders and has to work with her to solve crimes?  Do you suppose that, in the course of their pursuit of justice, they’ll fall in love?  The mystery itself is also pretty standard stuff, borrowed heavily from the Zodiac killer; there were very few twists and no surely-nots!, and the psychology of the killer was no more complicated than well-aren’t-you-just-a-little-nutcake.  If you suffer from similarly snarky internal commentary, it must be muffled in order to enjoy the simple fun of the story.

I’m also not an expert in romance as a genre—but perhaps I am, as is everyone who has ever fallen in, out, or adjacent to love.  Falling in love is a fine and many-layered thing strung together from moments so small and perfect that they’re almost invisible to the naked eye.  Think of that tiny scene in Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy helps Keira Knightley into the carriage and then stretches out his fingers almost imperceptibly.  Compared to those twenty seconds, Gabe and Delia’s relationship lumbers.  At one point Isadora the spiritualist says acidly “Don’t be offended, but watching the two of you being adorable is exhausting.  Go home, both of you,” (195).  Quite so, Isadora.

An 1882 cartoon.

An 1882 cartoon.

Historically, Jamie Lee Moyer has created a lovely image of early twentieth century San Francisco.  She did especially well with the complex memory of the great 1906 fire, and the city-wide excitement of the exposition in 1915.  However, I will also echo Liz Bourke’s comments about the diversity of the characters versus the actual diversity of San Francisco at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Delia and all her friends are white, with the exception of a cringe-inducing black housekeeper who gives them motherly advice and rules the kitchen with an iron fist.  Race and class are not issues of concern or conversation to the main characters.  This is partially a failure of genre—both murder mysteries and fantasy books are dominated by white (male) characters who don’t especially care about race and class, and I’m merely continuing to whine about the status quo.

But, more seriously, this is also a failure of historical understanding.  Race and class were vast, complicated, and constantly renegotiated issues in early twentieth-century California.  San Francisco was one of the fastest-growing and most mashed-up immigrant cities in the world.  Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Hispanic, and Filipino migrants were busily pouring through the exclusive immigration laws of the era.  A racialized anti-Asian mania had been built over the past fifty years, leading to the renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1902.  Always generous with our racism, the Japanese were excluded in 1924.  Jamie Lee Moyer’s book did not, of course, have to be about racialized immigration policy.  But wouldn’t the crowd have been a bit more diverse?  Would the main characters really have had twenty-first-century notions of equality and an absence of race-consciousness?  And, come to think of it, don’t serial killers often prey on the most marginalized sections of society?  All we have to cling to is a single moment early in the book when Delia sees the ghost of a Chinese railroad worker, and a moment when the black housekeeper mentions her husband who was shot for looting.  Those are moments that could have been so successfully explored, but are left to huddle in the lonely corners of the book.  Imagine what could have developed if Moyer had taken Delia’s ability to see ghosts as an opportunity to jumble up the social boundaries of race and class, as a way to make visible the constructed and stratified nature of early twentieth-century society.

Instead, she wrote an enjoyable, quick, and mostly satisfying mystery.  If her future work deepens and her worlds expand, it will be something truly remarkable.

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  1. Just from the couple of quotes you mentioned, it sounds like the language is a bit anachronistic. Did they say “rookie” back then?

    1. Yeah, I’m unsure–although some of the aspects of detective work at the turn of the century were well-researched (the kinds of cameras, the protocols, etc.). I also feel like the idea of a serial killer didn’t exist in such an archetypal way back then (Jack the Ripper didn’t even happen that long ago), and it could have been really interesting watching the characters figure out what they were dealing with without a preconceived category…

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