This week I’m highlighting a book I’ve waited a long time to read.
No Comfort for the Lost by Nancy Herriman is a beautifully written, historically fascinating look at the underside of 1867 San Francisco. It is the captivating story of Celia Davies, an English-born nurse living in the city and caring for its most unwanted residents–in many cases, the Chinese women and girls forced to work as prostitutes in the seedier parts of town. The reader is introduced to San Francisco as it existed 150 years ago–expanding, dirty, bustling, beautiful.
Celia is the guardian of her half-Chinese cousin Barbara, whose father passed away leaving them a home and leaving Celia a bit of money she uses to run her free health clinic. Barbara, besides being a member of a hated ethnic group in San Francisco, has health problems which prevent her from moving quickly or deftly. She occasionally helps Celia with her patients, but is sometimes not able to help as she would like.
When a former Chinese prostitute, a friend of Celia and Barbara, is found murdered, Celia takes it upon herself to attempt to figure out the culprit because certain members of the San Francisco Police Department have shown reluctance to spend too much time on crimes involving Chinese victims. Luckily, Celia finds a sympathetic detective, Nicholas Greaves, who is interested in the plight of the victim and who, despite the warnings from his overbearing and very unpleasant boss, is willing to invest police time and resources to find the perpetrator. With a past which is only hinted at in the book, Greaves has a soft spot for underdogs and a personal need to do the right thing. And he has a soft spot for Celia, too, despite (or perhaps because of?) her stubborn pig-headedness, which can only be described as both endearing and maddening.
As the story progresses, we find that the list of suspects is growing and that the people Celia and Barbara know and trust are not always what they seem (it wouldn’t be a mystery otherwise, would it?). I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that I suspected almost everyone in the book before being completely surprised by the ending.
I loved the book. I loved the descriptions of old San Francisco, the antiquated medical methods described to treat injuries and illness, and the story of Li Sha’s murder and its aftermath. Not only that, but one of the scariest undercurrents running through the book is the bigotry experienced by Chinese immigrants during the 19th century. In many ways, the issue has echoed down the years and still exists today, even in presidential politics in the United States. I was struck while reading the book of the similarities between 1867 San Francisco and the present day worldwide.
Nancy Herriman has a way with language and uses it in a way that evokes an older time and is still immensely readable and enjoyable. The amount of research that must have gone into No Comfort for the Lost is obvious and breathtaking in its depth. But besides all that, there are the backstory mysteries–what happened to Nicholas Greaves’ sister? What happened to Celia’s husband, Patrick?
And the very best part? There’s another Celia Davies book on the way! It’s called No Pity for the Dead and it will be released in August, 2016. I will be in line to pre-order it!
Full disclosure: Nancy Herriman is a friend, but as you know from previous posts, if I hadn’t liked her book I simply wouldn’t have recommended it.
Until next week,
P.S. If you’re interested in visiting Nancy Herriman online, her website is www.nancyherriman.com.