The Golden Gate by Amy Chua (Historical Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5

An extremely convoluted ( in a delightful way) murder mystery set against an intricately detailed history of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1930s and 40s. Walker Wilkinson — a rich industrialist and possible presidential candidate — is shot in his room at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley. Mixed race Detective Al Sullivan lands the case which offers him suspects and witnesses that range from the very rich to the poor and dispossessed — from political figures to steel workers to Chinese / Black / Mexican / Japanese workers. Chua — an historian, this is her first novel — weaves in famous figures such as Madame Chiang Kai Shek, Julia Morgan, Dr. Margaret Chung, and August Vollmer with perfect integrity and context. Background history is delivered in a more or less integrated way ranging from laws and policies to the history of crime labs, the threat of Communism, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Kaiser shipyards (before it was just a medical plan!), and even the geology of the state. I was aware of some of the historical references — e.g. the Chinese Exclusion Act — but not some of the others such as the Mexican Expulsion of 1931 and the Mann Act (aka the White Slaves act) which was often used against those in interracial marriages. Chua’s non-fiction books focus on “the disparate impact of capitalism on different ethnic and immigrant groups” and that theme is front and center of this well-written and engaging historical mystery.

Some random quotes:
“In California, we have county coroners, and they’re elected, which is not exactly a recipe for competence.“

“That depends on your view of relevance. Yours, Mr. Doogan, appears to be quite cramped.”

“You can’t trust newspapers, but there’s one subject they’re good at — hate. First they whip it up, then they report on it.“

“There’s a suspicion line in every society, Miriam, and you’re either above it or below it. The people above that line, they never even think about it. They walk the streets like they own them. They take for granted that the law is there to protect them because it is.”

Emily Dickinson, but quoted in the book and I love it: “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”

Thank you to Minotaur Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on September 19th, 2023

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