The Pearl of Ruby City

by Jana Harris

Published by St. Martin's Press

368 pages, 1998

ISBN: 0312193157

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The Perils of Pearl

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


There's an "everything and the kitchen sink" quality to this first entry in a new mystery series by Jana Harris.

The protagonist, Pearl O'Sullivan Ryan -- a 21-year-old, Irish-descended laundress and nurse who has washed up at an 1890s mining camp in eastern Washington state -- is on the run from her past in New York City (where she'd been accused of filching jewelry off her wealthy employer, Mrs. Ritters), yet finds time to flush out murderers from amongst the Civil War veterans, prostitutes, and vastly outnumbered Native Americans populating her new home, Ruby City. Got that? Then try to keep up as the not-quite-cultured Pearl (who fancies herself a "clever lass") pursues whoever poisoned the town's mayor and a short list of other prominent locals, while at the same time dodging Mrs. Ritters' charming son, who has appeared suddenly in Ruby City with matrimony on his mind, unaware that Pearl is already married (if in name only) to a long-lost Irish immigrant.

In another writer's hands, all this could have been a mess. Even Harris, a creative-writing teacher and noted Washington poet (The Dust of Everyday Life, Oh How Can I Keep Singing? Voices of Pioneer Women), has trouble keeping her surfeit of narrative threads from tangling and frustrating readers. The onslaught of plot points and red herrings is so dense and continuous, that it's frequently necessary to flip back a few pages (or chapters) and try to discern connections between an action and a reaction, or a moment of suspicion and the proof of a deed.

What helps save this novel are a modicum of lyricism in the writing and an ample cast of misfits and runaways. Besides Pearl -- an inquisitive dervish who tends too often to act impulsively -- there's her friend, the near-sighted and hunchbacked doctor of questionable medical expertise; a 300-pound, hermaphroditic, and one-eyed madam named Little Ella; a mysterious Siwash Indian called Pokamiakin, whom whites consider a horse thief but who is greatly respected among the area's Native Americans; Jake Pardee, a local swell, drug dealer, and blackmailer against whom Pearl has sworn revenge, because he swindled her father many years before; and assorted short-tempered miners. Harris' portraiture is vivid and occasionally downright loving (as in her description of a whore named Nightingale, whose off-hours are spent wearing a vice-like contraption that she prays will fix a facial deformity). I only wish that her characters weren't quite so numerous; it would have been helpful to have a dramatis personae at the beginning of the book. But at least once you have grasped each individual's background and behavior, they're hard to forget.

Equally memorable are some of author Harris' re-creations of life out west in the Gay '90s. The verisimilitude is so sharp, that you can almost feel the wind-borne grit in your teeth. Listen, for instance, to her description of Pearl's frontier mining camp:

I counted eight saloons, Little Ella's Boarding House, a livery, bank, faro tent, jailhouse, trading post, justice of the peace, and an assayer better at sampling spirits than ore. The town hall and courtroom convened at the mayor's saloon. The living quarters consisted mainly of tents or log cabins that lined Main Street, where plank sidewalks traversed a mountainside plagued by snow slide.... The log mercantile buzzed with ragged miners and cow-men in high-heeled boots and squaw-embroidered gauntlets. The miners' clothing and facial features were so ingrained with dirt and smoke that it would take Mr. Charles Dickens himself to do them the justice of a description -- except to say that bathing had fallen completely out of fashion.

All of this makes me wonder anew why more crime novelists aren't drawn to America's Old West. It offers at least as many eccentric figures and peculiar situational mores as do, say, 19th-century Manhattan or 18th-century London. However, the only two series with a western backdrop that come readily to mind are the late Douglas C. Jones' marvelous tales of crusty Arkansasan ex-marshal Oscar Schiller (The Search for Temperance Moon and A Spider for Loco Shoat ) and Donald Honig's underappreciated post-Civil War whodunits (The Sword of General Englund, The Ghost of Major Pryor) featuring War Department investigator Captain Thomas Maynard.

Maybe Jana Harris can help change that. If, with her next Pearl Ryan novel, she can restrain her creation of tertiary figures and secondary plot lines, then this western-derived series could prove a welcome addition to the subgenre of historical mysteries. | October, 1998

J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.