San Francisco Examiner columnist Ambrose Bierce may be a tough act to upstage, but here Hall finds a counterweight hiding in plain sight: heroically self-absorbed Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst, whose current mistress, Winifred Sweet, is beset on two sides. The Sam Yups and Feng Yups, currently battling for supremacy in the city’s tong wars, are threatening reprisals for her Examiner columns as “Annie Laurie” about the plight of young Chinese women sold into sexual slavery. And someone’s threatened her more intimately by murdering Jasper Billings, the photographer Hearst had commissioned to take a series of motion studies that presage the invention of motion pictures, and stealing a dozen photos of splendidly nude Winnie in motion. Enter Bierce and his sidekick and Boswell Tom Redmond, who’s been accompanying missionary Eliza Lindley on her rounds among San Francisco’s most desperate to get material for the Annie Laurie stories he’s been writing under Winnie’s byline. Tom will find plenty of action, since the trail of the missing photos leads through three more murders, Eliza’s decorous bed, and her much less decorous past with Harvard-educated slaver Frank Stone. It’s Hearst and Bierce, two most unlikely guardians of virtue, who are muffled and underemployed here, since the stink of scandal is so pungent that there’s precious little for America’s most cynical journalist and his megalomaniac boss to uncover.
Veteran Hall (Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings, 2001, etc.) provides some nice 1891 flavor, but the result, as Hearst himself aptly sputters, is “not Examiner journalism!”