“City of Ghosts” (Minotaur), by Kelli Stanley
A love of San Francisco — its flaws, strengths and eccentricities — permeates Kelli Stanley’s intriguing novels about private detective Miranda Corbie. Stanley’s novels capture San Francisco — and the United States — in the years just before World War II.
War has been on Miranda’s mind since she was a nurse in the Spanish Civil War. In “City of Ghosts,” set during 1940, Miranda cautiously watches what’s happening in London, especially when it appears that her long-lost mother may be living in England. The private detective has little hope that she could bring her mother back to the United States until James MacLeod, an agent with the State Department, enlists her help. He wants her to investigate Huntington Jasper, a chemistry professor suspected of being a spy for the Nazis. The U.S. won’t acknowledge Miranda’s assignment if she’s caught, but the job comes with hefty pay and a ticket to England.
Miranda’s case leads her to dealers specializing in artworks stolen by the Nazis from their Jewish owners. Complications arise when Miranda is implicated in a series of murders, including that of a wealthy client and an acquaintance.
Stanley keeps the novel on a brisk course as Miranda confronts her own city of ghosts, including a dysfunctional childhood, her stint as a prostitute for one of San Francisco’s top madams and the people whose deaths still haunt her. Fiercely independent during a time when that wasn’t in fashion, Miranda continues to be a true survivor.
Stanley’s affection for San Francisco establishes a strong sense of place and time in “City of Ghosts.” It is, Miranda muses, “A city made by dreamers who died paupers and paupers who lived like kings, dreams keeping them alive in the only way that mattered.”
The author’s clear-eyed view of San Francisco and of Miranda’s character adds to the strength of the novel’s engrossing historical fiction.