Oakley Hall •
Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings •
For decades, aspiring authors have thronged Oakley Hall’s Squaw Valley workshops in the hope that some of his magic would transfer itself to them. With his clean, bold prose style and knack for thrilling stories, Hall is a writer well worth emulating.
And the Ambrose Bierce mystery series is his perfect vehicle. Set in San Francisco’s rowdy, rollicking Barbary Coast days, the books yield a lush cast—robber barons and royalty, suffragettes and psychics, brothel keepers and beat cops. A six-foot-tall Hawaiian heiress utterly bewitches narrator Tom Redmond: “Her tan hand with its tapered fingers and shiny nails was so perfectly formed it made the backs of my legs ache,” he gasps on meeting her.
Aphorisms from the biting Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce’s best-known work, open each chapter, and Bierce himself plays detective here. (For more on the writer-turned-sleuth phenomenon, see Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.)
If the modern world is overly tame—or overly technical—for your liking, you’re guaranteed to find the antidote in these juicy pages. Characters visit foul-smelling piers, get around in clanging cable cars, feast at the opulent Palace Hotel. (Redmond is partial to oyster loaf—“half a loaf of French bread hollowed out and filled with a dozen oysters, all baked in the oven and served blessedly hot.”) Every step on the fog-slickened cobblestones is charged with adventure.
Early in Death of Kings, a young man approaches Bierce to ask his professional advice. “He was a scourge of hypocrites, but a friend of writers.” The famously misanthropic journalist ticks off three pitfalls to avoid—the habitual case, the passive voice, and the overuse of adverbs and adjectives—and the novice goes on his way, effusively grateful to learn at the hands of a master.
Much like the Squaw Valley groups.