The Russian Hill Murders

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Pioneering female attorney Sarah Woolson reluctantly attends a dinner aimed at raising funds for a women and children's hospital. The dinner, to be held at the lavish home of Caroline and Leonard Godfrey, will be attended by the cream of San Francisco society. Still, Sarah resists, because she knows that most of those in attendance take a dim view of her efforts to build her legal career. But all such issues are forgotten when Caroline Godfrey collapses and dies from what looks like an errant dosage of heart medication.

No one considers Caroline's death a murder, until a number of other souls with ties to the hospital expire as well. First, the Reverend Josiah Halsey, a fiery opponent of the hospital, dies under puzzling circumstances. Next, chief accountant Lucius Arlen perishes. Finally, Dora Clemens, a petulant young helper in the hospital kitchen, dies before a horrified contingent of hospital staff. The scant available evidence points to newly hired cook Chin Lee Fong. Sarah Woolson is retained by a powerful ally of Fong who is certain that the local undercurrent of racial bias will preclude an adequate defense from any other attorney. In her increasingly desperate search for exonerating evidence, Sarah must cast accusatory inquiries toward many people she considers friends, which does little to aid her struggle to establish herself as an attorney.

Shirley Tallman creates a wonderfully vivid character in Sarah Woolson, who must struggle against both a damning array of evidence and a social environment that regards her only with stern disapproval.