CITY OF SECRETS is the second of Kelli Stanley's award-winning Miranda Corbie novels, which begins within a few months after CITY OF DRAGONS ends. It is still 1940, the setting is still San Francisco, and there is yet another celebration taking place: the beginning of the second season of the Golden Gate International Exposition. Be warned: when you open the book and begin reading the first page, you are leaving the 21st century and wherever you happen to be behind. By page nine, you will be so thoroughly immersed in the San Francisco of the mid-20th century that your contemporary surroundings will seem to be the product of an inferior imagination.
Stanley's imagination, on the other hand, is anything but inferior. She conjures up a time far removed from our own and a place that was once real and is forever exotic. Her characters, from her tough-as-nails heroine to her villains and victims, are twisted archetypes, by turns readily identifiable as such and not so much, easily recognizable but never predictable. This is perhaps most true of Corbie, an escort turned private investigator, who would seem too tough to love without risk until she reveals, however momentarily and rarely, a haunting fragility that stays with the reader long after the tale is told.
So it is that Corbie, who is at times barely making ends meet in her new profession, finds herself compelled to once again take on a case pro bono that the powers-that-be want her as far away from as possible. Page one kicks off with a dead body, that of a model named Pandora Blake, who has been murdered and left with an anti-Semitic slur written in her own blood. Corbie is on the case immediately and is just as abruptly removed from it; she cannot let go of it, however, and when another woman of similar circumstances is found in...well, similar circumstances, Corbie investigates even more tenaciously.
Anti-Semitism was the rule rather than the exception at that time; Hitler and Stalin seemed to be in competition as to who could eradicate the Jewish people first. The United States was still on the sidelines of World War II, and many questioned the wisdom of intervening to stop the Holocaust; some resented and blamed the victims for the fact that the issue was even being raised.
So it is that Corbie follows a twisted trail that begins at a defaced Jewish synagogue, and twists and turns its way through the dark streets of the lower end of San Francisco, where tourists venture looking for thrills they won't find at home, then unexpectedly to a section of the Napa Valley that the out-of-towners don't even know exists. Along the way, Corbie discovers that, as wicked as the motivation behind the deaths of two young women may have been, a far worse act is planned, one that Corbie may not have enough power or time to stop. She is also subjected to an unexpected revelation that undoubtedly will have repercussions for future installments of the series.
As interesting and as original as the mystery that forms the heart of CITY OF SECRETS is, it is the backdrop of the story --- San Francisco in the year 1940 --- and the characters that form the raison d'être to read and savor the novel from beginning to end. There is no detail to escape Stanley's notice, and the descriptive power of her prose is such that you will find yourself --- as I did --- with a well-marked and underlined book by story's end. If Stanley can find the time and pursue the inclination, I would love to have her write a travel guide of San Francisco from the perspective of the year 1940. Until that might happen, though, CITY OF SECRETS is a more than suitable magic carpet to take you there.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub