City of Dragons reads like the script from a film noir like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Kelli Stanley's style skillfully echoes those of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as she brings to life the gritty world of San Francisco's Chinatown during the 1940s.
"San Francisco yawned and stretched, waking to Monday morning with a hangover. Chinatown shutters squealed open on rusty hinges, the streets shut off now, self-contained, the cotton-candy smell evaporated, the carnival gone on a dilapidated coach car to smaller, more simple places.
Old women swept chicken bones and popcorn and cigarette butts from foyers. Incense burned, sending curling waves of smoke drifting down to the Bay, to tickle the noses of businessmen on the ferry to Oakland."
The heroine of the novel is Miranda Corby, a tough-as-nails former "escort" turned private detective. Stanley achieves the near impossible with this character, making her neither too feminine or too masculine, too soft or too hard. It's a fine balance, and one which allows her readers to appreciate a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed character that could have easily become unlikable.
Perhaps the highlight of this book is Stanley's remarkable attention to historical detail. It's obvious the author has taken great pains to research the period. She slips in little details that place the narrative firmly in the era without long descriptive paragraphs that could slow the action. For example, in turning on the radio Miranda "turned the volume down low, but enough to recognize human voices once the tubes warmed up." The inclusion of such snippets of everyday life in the 1940s really brings Miranda's world to life. She also frequently alludes to people who would have been well-known in that era, for example referring to a room being the "size of Mrs. Astor's closet," or referencing Charles Lindbergh's well-publicized anti-war stance. Descriptions of clothing styles, cars and neighborhoods, too, perfectly evoke the time and place.
Although I ended up enjoying the novel by its completion, its flaws are significant, enough so that I nearly ended up abandoning the book after the first 50 pages. It took me some time to adjust to the author's style. She relies on very clipped sentences, often lacking a subject or a definite article. It's typical of this genre, but a little goes a long way, and at times I felt the author overdid it. At some points her attempt to mimic the hard-boiled style crossed over into parody, taking clichés to extremes. Every page mentioned cigarettes or smoking, and every other page referenced drinking or alcohol. While these props are vital to the genre, again, the author relies on them too frequently. Almost all of the characters are flat, one-dimensional stereotypes. In addition, the author writes down one-sided phone conversations, complete with "Yeah uh huh uh huh Right," and it's downright annoying, particularly when done repeatedly. She also embeds song lyrics in the middle of action scenes, trying to give her audience the impression that the music is playing in the background while events are taking place in the fore. This device is clever when used once or twice, but gets old if employed too often, as it is here. Finally, the book feels like it's the third or fourth in the series, rather than its initial entry. The author regularly references events and people that are parts of Miranda's past with very little explanation or back story. While this is a great way to leave the door open for sequels, there's far too much of it - it feels too contrived, and it can be quite confusing.
That said, I do recommend City of Dragons to those who enjoy hard-boiled detective fiction. This is one of those books that one needs to read for its entertainment value alone, turning a blind eye to its literary faults. This is the first book in the Miranda Corbie mystery series, and, despite its flaws, I find myself looking forward to the next installment.
Just published in hardcover: City of Secrets, Book 2 in the Miranda Corbie mystery series.
This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the August 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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