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CITY OF THE ABSENT:
An Inspector Alastair Ransom Mystery
By Robert W. Walker
Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins), 2008 ($7.99)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
It is October, 1893 in Chicago, and the great World's Fair has come to a close. While police detective Alastair Ramsom and his paramour Dr. Jane Francis Tewes, aka Dr. James Phineas Tewes, are basking in the afterglow of romance and pondering their future together, Mayor Carter Harrison is fighting for his life, cut down by an assassin's bullet on his own front lawn. When bells and sirens fill the night, Ramsom realizes something big is going on, and he sets off to find out what. All is chaos at the crime scene, and Ramsom thrives on chaos, so he is soon in the middle of the investigation. He is not pleased when Dr. James Tewes shows up, but he/she explains that the mayor's wife has asked him/her to come because he/she (okay, I'll stop that now) in addition to being a fine surgeon, has some skill in reaching into the great beyond to connect the departed with their loved ones. The mayor is now beyond the reach of her surgical skills, and Mrs. Harrison and their son want to have one last moment with him.
Ransom frowns on that aspect of Jane's life, but then he frowns on many of the things she does. He thinks a great deal, sometimes to the point of over thinking, about what would happen if they should marry. Her alter ego would have to go, and she would be revealed as a woman surgeon, still not an acceptable job for a woman in 1893. Still, she has gained respect form the community, and her identity is becoming less and less secret anyway. Ransom ponders on. She might ask him to take a safer job, and he would hate that. So many cons, too few pros, but hey, the sex is great! Jane has problems with his hot temper, which gets him into trouble far too often, and his attempts to denigrate her fierce independence. Still, the sex if so fine, and she is pretty sure she loves him.
Meanwhile, back in the criminal realm - the fair brought Chicago money, prestige, tourists, and world renown. It also brought snake oil salesmen, thieves, thugs and murderers. Chicago already had plenty of the latter, along with widespread corruption in the government, including the medical community and the police force. Medical schools need cadavers, and some doctors are not adverse to hiring nasty individuals to procure a fresh supply. This crime comes close to home for Alastair when a friend of his, a lady Pinkerton agent, becomes a victim of the body thieves.
Chicago has a great, flamboyant, fascinating history, and Walker does a wonderful job of making it come alive. This is the third in Walker's series on Chicago in the Gilded Age, following CITY FOR RANSOM and SHADOWS IN THE CITY and it is my favorite so far. As an extra special touch, there is a copy of the original program from the fair in the back of the book.
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