by Ann Parker
American readers and consumers of other cultural content will never quite tire of the stories of the American Wild West of the 19th century. Second only to those stories and myths are those of the Civil War. These two historical periods make up much of the core of American mythology and aspirations. There are, of course, many other stories to tell, but we seem to want to return to these events and times, time and time again. We seek the truth of those times and places and we tend to overlay our modern concerns and morality tales upon those characters and landscapes. Movie westerns have long depicted modern times and ideals through the stories of gunslingers, ranchers and other adventurers of the American West. The Civil War remains fertile ground for morality tales and plumbing the darker aspects of the American character. Underlay all of that with the romance of the expansion of railroads across the country, and you have vast ground of history, stories and hidden connections to exploit.
And so, travel with Ann Parker back to 1880 and the mining city of Leadville, Colorado, where fast-moving railroad construction is approaching from the east and there are rumors that former president and Civil War general U.S. Grant is coming to have a few drinks at the saloon owned and operated by our protagonist Mrs. Inez Stannert. Inez is a woman with a complicated past, in a town of characters with complicated histories. Her husband Mark abandoned her almost two years earlier, and left her alone with their partner, Abe, to run the saloon. She has a young son being cared for by family back east, but it is uncertain when or if she will ever be allowed to go visit him. Meanwhile, she is having a mostly secret dalliance with Reverend Sands, who, himself, has dark memories of the Civil War. Meanwhile, though, a mysterious and explosive incident on the railroad tracks near town trigger a cascade of strange events and suspected conspiracies around each corner. Is someone planning an attack on President Grant? Are there other generals from either side of the war who may be targets? Is there a Confederate conspiracy? Are there Union spies, even fifteen years after the war ended? Inez is caught up in this tangle of affairs as the events touch on those near and dear to her. She is not so much a sleuth as a concerned citizen and the way the story unfolds is seen from the point of view of Inez's position primarily on the sidelines, catching glimpses and fragments and without a whole lot of freedom to investigate the leads that she discovers.
Indeed, that question of freedom is an interesting element to the story. Inez is a woman alone in what was primarily a man's world. We like to imagine there were strong and independent women populating Victorian-era Colorado, and there were some. But Inez's position is subtly affirmed by the sometimes dismissive behavior of the men in her life. She resists that, but the men often deride her theories of the crimes being committed around her, and try to assert their own control over events. The restrictions are symbolized by Inez's confinement to women's dress of the era, in which exposing an ankle or a calf could be considered scandalous. Even table legs would be covered by long cloth to prevent anyone becoming tittilated by the shape of turned wood. Ultimately, the reader gets drawn in by these exhaustively researched details. Parker has done some long and deep digging into the history of Leadville, the War, and the lives of people living in its shadow. She goes so far as to explore the complications of PTSD in a time when that kind of mental trauma was rather seen as a moral failing on the part of the victim.
The mystery itself, as mentioned, is revealed through fragmentary glimpses captured by Inez's fitful investigations. Crimes occur off-stage, leaving vague impressions and incomplete details. Characters walk in and out, sometimes disappearing for much of the story. But Inez isn't in a position to keep up on their whereabouts. She does, however, know something unpleasant is afoot and will not let anyone stop her when she knows she can do something about it. The mystery itself is satisfyingly complex. This reader was certain he had a notion of what was going on well into the last quarter of the book, only to have his expectations exploded by the final revelations. In that, and in its engrossing history, Parker's novel stands out among historical fiction, and apart from traditional genre mystery. This book, published in 2006, is the second in Parker's Silver Rush mystery series, and its color and detail will leave the reader looking forward to more.
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Also by Ann Parker: [Silver Lies]
[Other Books by Women Authors]