Bloody Lessons: A Victorian San Francisco Mystery
by M. Louisa Locke

Create Space, 2013. ISBN 978-1-492-15904-9.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 09/26/2013

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mystery

Ms. Locke's book is the third in her Victorian San Francisco Mysteries (and she has two short stories in the series too), and she continues the strong characters and interesting views of Victorian San Francisco. This reviewer was raised across the bay from the city, and finds the mix of mystery, San Francisco history and strong women characters very appealing.

Bloody Lessons deals, in part, with the historical battle over teachers' pay and responsibilities. We think that our teachers are underpaid and undervalued now, but in 1880 their salaries were a travesty. Teachers were paid based on the age level they taught, their sex, and their connections. "The newspaper said that one of the Board members justified lower salaries for the primary grades because taking care of the youngest children didn't require any special training or experience to do well." The school board wanted to slash salaries by 30%!

The mystery in the book surrounds our protagonist, a financial advisor disguised as a psychic, young widow Annie Fuller. She runs a boarding house to support herself, and helps advise the San Francisco elite with their investments by pretending to be a medium; after all, women are thought not to have the brains to provide advice of any kind! Annie's beau, lawyer Nate Dawson, asks Annie to mentor and sponsor his young sister, Laura, who is a teacher. The plot thickens when angry, accusatory letters begin to circulate about hanky-panky between board members and teachers.

The historical background is accurate and beautifully recounted in Bloody Lessons. Each chapter is headed by a quote taken from the San Francisco Chronicle of the time. As Annie struggles to maintain her disguise as a psychic medium, Madame Sybil, she debates whether her clients have come to trust her enough to allow her to let the clandestine personality emerge and openly become a financial advisor, working under her own name. In addition to that worry, she is juggling her relationship with Nate, concerned about the well-being of her boarding house tenants, and striving to solve the seemingly insolvable.

The past is revealed slowly, as several teachers in the story seem to have secrets. Who were the men in Laura Dawson's former life, and why was she attacked in the alley? Why are there some teachers without any training or credentials? Ribboned throughout the story are Annie's personal relationships, friends and co-workers who are very three-dimensional and believable. The reader can take a genuine interest in these Victorian lives, in San Francisco's communities at that time, and in the characters that come to life and bloom in Bloody Lessons.

Ms. Locke's background as a college professor (recently retired) of U.S. History and Women's History have proven to be a boon in her writing of this dynamic series. Although the books stand alone well, I recommend that you start with the first book, Maids of Misfortune, so you can appreciate fully the growth of the characters and beauty of the San Francisco setting.

Read an excerpt from this book.

M. Louisa Locke is a recently retired history professor. In 1979, while working on her doctoral dissertation on late nineteenth century western working women, She was inspired by a passage in a diary by a domestic servant that suggested a perfect setting for a cozy "locked room" mystery. That inspired this Victorian San Francisco mystery series. She lives in San Diego with her husband assorted critters. Find out more on her website.

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