Interwoven storylines—civic corruption, sex, high-profile murder, Enrico Caruso—lead up to, then involve the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
Frustrated young newspaper reporter Annalisa Passarelli, who narrates, wants to cover politics but is consigned to cultural events like the upcoming performances of world-renowned tenor Enrico Caruso and rising dramatic actor John Barrymore. Nonetheless, Annalisa tracks the escalating war between the crimelords working the Barbary Coast (Shanghai Kelly, The Whale, and Scarface being three of the most notorious) and the overworked police force headed by righteous Lieutenant Byron Fallon. Byron’s elder son Christian has followed in his father’s footsteps, but younger son Hunter is attending Stanford. When a policeman is murdered while investigating a waterfront shanghaiing operation, Byron personally checks it out—and meets the same fate. Hunter and Christian, helped by Annalisa, follow a trail of graft and depravity that leads all the way up to the office of city attorney Adam Rolf, a highly respected citizen. Meanwhile, geologists tracking recent trends warn of the disaster to come, but the civic crooks put personal gain well above public safety. The lynchpin in a cabal that includes railroad magnates, crooked cops, and avaricious politicians, attorney Rolf regularly hires courtesans of the famous Madame Tessie Wall. Indeed, Kansas teenager Kaitlin Staley, dreaming of fame and fortune, runs away from her domineering father and straight into the arms of the predatory Wall and Rolf. Both Barrymore and Caruso are onstage the night before the early morning quake (Caruso’s pre-performance rituals are outlined in amusing detail), and Dalessandro tracks a dozen other denizens of Nob Hill, Pacific Heights, Bush Street and elsewhere in the hours before the tremor. An action-packed final third dramatizes the quake and subsequent fire, and their impact on the sprawling cast of characters.
Prelude to the disaster feels a bit like woolgathering, but Dalessandro (Bohemian Heart, 1993, etc.) pays off with an exciting and vivid depiction of history.