When Sarah Woolson (Murder on Nob Hill, 2004) joins the fundraising effort for a hospital sorely needed in 19th-century San Francisco, she finds herself with an immigrant widow, a handsome shipping magnate and a Chinese cook for clients.
Pierce Godfrey wants Sarah to negotiate a contract for new ships. Why would a shipping magnate engage a fledgling female lawyer for such work? While Sarah wrestles with his sex appeal and secret agenda, Pierce’s sister-in-law and former paramour, Caroline Godfrey, director of the Women and Children’s Hospital, dies of an apparent heart attack. Happily, another socially prominent woman, Margaret Barlow, a Woolson family friend, takes over and also agrees to help Sarah’s second client, a penniless Irish woman with three children, who’s hired Sarah to sue the owner of the sweatshop where her husband died in a fire. When the hospital’s accountant is poisoned, Sarah gets her third client: the dangerous lord of Chinatown’s organized crime, who asks her to defend the Chinese cook accused of murder. Sarah manages to win her first criminal defense trial and file suit against the sweatshop owner, all the while overcoming rampant racism, sexism and capitalism.
Tallman’s colorful social history sits uneasily in the frame of a historical romance, and Sarah and her foes tend to sound the same choleric note over and over.