Oakley Hall, Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks (Viking, 2003)

Period writing, particularly if it uses real historical figures, requires a fine eye for detail and the ability to get into the mindset of the era under consideration. The best authors in this style use just enough detail to make this work. Too much detail and the novel becomes an academic treatise. Lost in the information are any attempts at memorable characters or plot. Getting it right is a careful and rare skill.

Oakley Hall amply demonstrates this skill in bringing Ambrose Bierce back for a third time as a detective/newspaperman in Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks. Set in fin-de-siecle San Francisco, the novel combines a detailed slice of San Francisco life, dialog that brings the characters vividly to life, and a clever mystery that keeps the reader fully engaged to the end.

A pair of murders amongst the Sausalito elite draws in Bierce and his sidekick Tom Redmond, prompted by their publisher William Randolph Hearst. The discovery of compromising photographs, including one of Hearst's mistress, unearths links between the murdered men, the photographs, and the San Francisco underworld. As with the first two Bierce novels (Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades and Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings), the crimes connect into webs of criminal activity and official corruption that stretch from San Francisco to the state capital.

Hall's quick-paced and sharp dialog is the perfect backdrop for Bierce. A thorough use of historical details from 1890s San Francisco merges fictional and historical events and characters seamlessly. As in the prior Bierce mysteries, a signature issue of historical malfeasance frames the plot. In The One-Eyed Jacks the issue is the sale of Chinese girls into chattel slavery. Hall follows the earlier novels' pattern -- Bierce and Redmond are called in to investigate a crime, Redmond becomes romantically involved with a woman who appears unconnected to the crime, and the widening investigation pulls all of the characters and events together in time for Bierce to solve the crime.

The talent that Hall brings to Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks keeps the novel fresh despite the familiar plot. Hall's gifts shine in the perfectly worked and ornamented dialog, as well as the carefully twisted intrigue. The killings, blackmail, kidnapping, and scheming keep the reader on edge throughout the novel. Recognizing familiar patterns and plot devices simply settles one in all the faster to enjoy Hall's recreation of Bierce's noted wit.

Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks excels both as historical fiction and as a detective story. 1890s San Francisco and its larger-than-life characters (Bierce, Hearst) leap off of the book's pages. The depth of Hall's research and his skills as a writer keep the fictional characters and events perfectly merged with history. A continuously twisting mystery keeps the reader in the dark until near the end of the novel. Hall's depiction of Bierce and San Francisco has improved with each novel; Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks will pull you along to the end, eager for more.

[Eric Eller]