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Historical Mysteries

The Shanghai Tunnel, Sharan Newman, Forge, $24.95.

Oh, how I have missed Sharan Newman! I'm not alone - fans of her wonderful Catherine LeVendeur series are legion - and I'm also not alone in being not so sure about Newman switching her locale from 12th century France to 19th century Portland, Oregon. But I should have had a little more faith - Newman is one of the more gifted narrative storytellers writing at the moment, and her gift does not fail her in this latest, and very welcome, outing. At dinner a few years ago Sharan was talking about the research she was doing for this book - some kind of tunnels under Portland - I didn't retain it, because I was so caught up in hoping for Catherine's return. However, the tunnels make a compelling beginning and end to this wonderful book that is full of surprises at every turn. In the opening sequence, a man in a saloon disappears under the floor. Newman then drops this vignette to focus on her main character, Emily Stratton.

Lots of the themes in this book will be familiar to any Newman devotee. Emily, a recently widowed mother moving back to the States from a lifetime spent in China, is more relieved than saddened that her brutal, coarse husband Horace is dead. With her sixteen year old son, Robert, she sets up a household in Portland in the luxurious home Horace had bought and furnished before dying suddenly on the trip home. Emily is thus truly a stranger in a strange land - not only has she never lived in Portland, she's never lived in America, and she desperately misses the Chinese language, clothing and food she grew up with. The hoopskirts and corsets current in 1868 America are a puzzle to her and a decided disadvantage. As with Catherine LeVendeur, Emily is thus an insider and an outsider at the same time. Part owner of her late husband's business, she is at the same time a woman, and one who has lived abroad her entire life to boot.

Quickly introduced to both her husband's business partners and the sister and brother in law and nieces she has never met, Emily attempts to settle into Portland, while at the same time being disquieted at what she finds as she combs through her husband's books, to the complete dismay of his partners. When her Chinese cook is found shot to death, Emily's worries deepen, and they aren't helped by her ignorance of her son Robert's wild behavior. She thinks he's an angel - the servants know otherwise. The tiny community of her own household is the only place she feels she can truly be herself; and she feels very lonely and adrift especially when someone she had felt was a friend turns out to have a murkier background than she had at first thought.

I found myself becoming completely involved in Emily's life - her quest for the Chinese herbal medications she's been used to; her suggestion to Horace's partners that they import bean curd rather than opium and "coolies"; and her attempts to understand calling cards, her sister in law, and to make sense of the general friendliness of the Americans she meets every day. She has an Irish maid who vainly tries to get her to love "spuds" (though she's a convert to Chinese cooking by the end of the novel) and a loyal stablemaster who has his own secret.

This is a complete world the reader is introduced to, populated by both prostitutes and ministers and everyone possible in between, with, as is characteristic of this talented author, completely memorable and believable backstories of their own. This isn't a book where you'll be flipping back pages trying to remember who all the characters are; they're indelible right from the start. The mystery itself is twisty and complex - I never figured out the ending and / or the ultimate villain of the piece - plus, I learned the true meaning of the term "being Shanghaied". As with the Catherine books, Newman's eye for the unjust - here the treatment of the Chinese as virtual slaves by Americans - as well as a feminist story arc for her main character, anchor the story. Emily, like Catherine, never seems an anachronism or a polemic, though, just a smart survivor. When you're finished, I would be surprised if you weren't both in floods of tears, as I was, as well as eager for the next installment.

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