this is the 118th in my series of posts on forgotten or seldom read books
The Strange Files of Fremont Jones by Dianne Day, Bantam Books 1996 – mass market paperback, historical mystery
In a book discussion just yesterday at lunch with Tina Karelson and Kate Deire, both of whom were members of the fine (but sadly now defunct) mystery apa DAPA-Em, Diane Day’s name came up, so I thought I’d put this one up for Friday Forgotten Books.
I’m always interested in reading a historical mystery and this qualifies since it takes place in San Francisco in 1905. Much of the attraction for me in historical mysteries is the way characters are set in both a physical and temporal location, and the stronger the characters and the more intriguing the place the better I like it.
This book is the first in the Fremont Jones series, and the first I read. Following titles in the series are Fire and Fog, The Bohemian Murders, Emperor Norton’s Ghost and Death Train To Boston.
Fremont Jones is twenty-two years of age, intelligent, of an independent mind. In the opening sentence of the book she tells us “I know what people say about me: that I am willful and opinionated, shockingly eccentric in my manner of dress (this because I will not wear a corset), altogether a trial to my father. These things are true except the last.”
It takes such a woman to pack her bags and set out to start a life in San Francisco, about as far from her Boston upbringing (and new stepmother) as she can get. She sets herself up in business as a typist and it is through the front door of her business that this adventure comes.
1905 is an interesting period in the history of San Francisco. The gold fever of the 1850’s has come and mostly gone but much of the prosperity it brought remains, along with the Chinese imported to work in the mines and build the railroads. They are the underclass and are treated as such. For the rest, the class structure is based more on wealth than ancestry and it is a time and place of opportunity, for Fremont and for the young lawyer Justin Cameron whom she meets soon after her arrival. He is working to begin his career and they are attracted to each other from the beginning.
It is Cameron, Edgar Allan Partridge, an odd writer of gothic tales, and Li Wong, the elder of a Chinese family, who together cause Fremont Jones’ life to become an adventure filled with mysteries, partial truths and strange, half-understood events. In her capacity as a typist Fremont reads the unsettling stories of Partridge, who claims that they are true, one about a murdering lighthouse keeper, another about the horrifying possession of a young boy. She also types a dictated statement for Li Wong which has grave consequences: shortly afterward, Li Wong is murdered. The Chinatown element of this book is wonderful, the plot elements, the characters, the descriptions. I particularly liked the character of Li Wong’s daughter, Meiling, who I believe appears in subsequent books.
Other characters we encounter are Fremont’s fellow lodger Michael Archer and their landlady Mrs. O’Leary, who after the death of her husband turned her home into a boarding house. Archer is a mysterious figure, coming and going at odd times and on unexplained trips. He appears not to work for a living. Where does he go? What does he do? Is he to be feared, or trusted? I liked Michael Archer as well as any character in this book except for Fremont Jones herself, and this book is really about character much more than plot. It’s not a traditional whodunit in any sense.
Though it doesn’t occur throughout the entire series, there is a gothic/horror element in this book, which is not the kind of thing I normally read. When I was in high school I enjoyed Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and have re-read some of them since. The fictional works of Edgar Allan Partridge are as disturbing as those of the man with whom he shares initials. Dianne Day has done an excellent job of creating the style and mood of Poe’s writing for her imaginary author. Though not my favorite element of this book I admire the skill with which she writes it.
Character is only one of this author’s strengths. Whether in a small sailboat on the bay or riding through a rainstorm in a horse-drawn cart, the author lets us feel we are there with the characters. I enjoyed these passages as much as any in the book and found myself wishing the author had stretched them out more, but no doubt her editors would have carved them up had she done so.
The Strange Files of Fremont Jones has smooth plot transitions and I noticed no jarring notes in the historical continuity. I confess one of the primary characters and the part of the plot tied to him wasn’t much to my liking, but that demonstrates Day’s skill – if I had liked him the book wouldn’t work nearly as well. I did continue reading, with no hesitations, to the satisfying end. I need to reread more of this series.
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The rest of the Friday Forgotten Book posts
can be found at Patti Abbott’s fine blog Pattinase