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By Michael F. Stewart

Shirley Tallman’s fifth installment of the Sarah Woolson series, DEATH ON TELEGRAPH HILL, begins with a reading by Oscar Wilde followed by a gunshot. Wilde’s reading may have been sleepy but I can assure you there’s nothing soporific in this historical thriller.

The fiercely independent Sarah Woolson is a rare find in 1882 San Francisco — a female attorney with her own law practice. Defying a woman’s “proper” place in society, Sarah is more likely to be found in the courtroom than in the drawing room, ready to go to any lengths to stand up for what’s right — especially when family is involved. After an evening spent listening to the young Irish poet Oscar Wilde, Sarah and her brother Samuel are making their way down San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill when the sound of a gunshot shatters the quiet night, the bullet striking Samuel. Sarah sets out to uncover the truth, but what she finds are more questions — and multiple murders. When the police arrest a friend whom Sarah believes to be innocent, she agrees to act as his attorney and faces the most difficult case of her career. Even worse, she discovers too late that she may have just added her own name to the killer’s list!

DEATH ON TELEGRAPH HILL is sure to delight fans of her novels and pick up thousands more if her PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY and LIBRARY JOURNAL starred reviews are any indication.

“Tallman convincingly makes her lead a dogged and fearless sleuth.” PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY (starred review).

“Multiple murders are all in a day’s work for nineteenth-century San Francisco attorney Sarah Woolson… Neatly marries mystery, romance, and historic San Francisco in an enjoyable tale of the stubbornly independent career woman.” KIRKUS REVIEWS.

“Once again bringing Victorian San Francisco to colorful life, Tallman offers an entertaining mystery with an indomitable, independent heroine that will appeal to fans of Anne Perry and Rhys Bowen.” LIBRARY JOURNAL (starred review).

It’s my great pleasure to introduce Shirley Tallman, author of the Sarah Woolson series, who has generously offered to discuss her novel.

Hi, Shirley, welcome and congratulations on your latest release, DEATH ON TELEGRAPH HILL. Every review of the series raves about your heroine, Sarah Woolson, can you tell us more about her?

Sarah embodies all the qualities I most admire in a heroine: intelligence, determination, fair-mindedness, empathy, honesty and, above all, courage. In order for a woman to square up against the chauvinism rampant in 1880’s society, she would have had to possess all of these virtues — in spades! Yet despite her feisty independence, she also possesses a quiet vulnerability and sensitivity that makes us sympathize with the many obstacles she must face, and root for her to come out victorious in the end.

What can readers expect in DEATH ON TELEGRAPH HILL? Being new to the series, is it important that I’ve read the first four novels?

Each book in the Sarah Woolson mystery series can be read as a stand-alone novel. Having said that, I personally prefer to start with the first book in a series. On the other hand, I’ve met readers who based their selection on the appearance of the book jacket, or where the story takes place in the city. For instance, I met a woman at a San Francisco bookstore who lived on Russian Hill. She was carrying an armful of the THE RUSSIAN HILL MURDERS that she planned to give to friends and neighbors on the Hill. She emailed me later to say that she liked the book so much she went on to read the rest of the Sarah Woolson mysteries. So I guess it depends on your own personal preference.

My hope is that readers will find DEATH ON TELEGRAPH HILL to be an intriguing whodunit, with lots of twists and turns and thought-provoking characters. I was drawn to this particular hill, when I learned that a small colony of writers and artists did in fact make their modest homes there during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Because its severe grade made it difficult to ascend the hill – even with the use of a horse and carriage – the cost of living there remained very reasonable for some years. This attracted immigrants, working-class labourers and their families, and of course those who were attempting to break into San Francisco’s literary world. As with the characters in the book, their homes were situated on steep dirt and gravel streets, with goats grazing in fields and along the narrow paths. Although a part of the larger city situated below them, the early inhabitants of the “Hill,” as it was popularly nicknamed, formed their own little community. This included a wide variety of wild animals, as well as the shotguns and pistols required to keep these “varmints” in check. But what if one of those guns hit a man instead of a fox? I wondered. And what if the victim were Sarah’s own brother Samuel? How would she manage if he were nearly killed? That was one mystery I wanted to see Sarah solve.

Why do you think your readership empathizes so strongly with Sarah’s obstacles as BOOKLIST has suggested? Do you believe fighting for women’s rights in a historical novel is significant for the 21st century audience?

It was never my intention to make women’s rights a central point in the Sarah Woolson books. It just seemed to evolve naturally due to the nature of Sarah’s work. It would have been very difficult for a woman to study for the law in the 19th century, much less actually make a living in the legal profession. Early on I was lucky to come across a book containing the “Letters of the Equity Club, 1887 to 1890.” This collection was submitted once or twice a year by young women lawyers across the country. They clearly demonstrate how difficult it was for a woman to pursue a legal career in those days. Once they were married, every one of them was forced back into hearth and home to raise their children, care for their house, and see to their husband’s needs. Since Sarah comes from a legal family (her father is a judge, one brother is a state senator, while another is studying for his bar examinations), she knows better than most girls how impossible it would be to follow her heart and her career, while at the same time satisfying society’s strictures concerning a woman’s “proper” place.

Interestingly, I’ve met a number of women lawyers since the first book in the series came out who claim that the situation, as it pertains to women entering the legal field, was not all that different from Sarah’s when they began their own law careers, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. I continue to find this surprising, and more than a little sad.

Writers are often told about the importance of character arcs and yet, for a series, incorporating a character arc is difficult to pace. Does Sarah grow older with each novel? Does she change with each challenge she overcomes? Or do you use a model similar to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, where part of the appeal is that the reader knows exactly what to expect from your protagonist?

I believe it’s important, even in a series, to show a character’s growth. After all, if I faced some of Sarah’s challenges I can’t imagine they wouldn’t change me! Although I happen to be a big fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, I’ve tried to follow a character arc in my own books – within limits. While Sarah does age, she does it slowly. The first book in the series, MURDER ON NOB HILL, is set in the spring of 1880. The new fifth book in the series, DEATH ON TELEGRAPH HILL, begins in the early spring of 1882. But she does grow and change during those two years, both in her professional and personal life. She would have to in order to deal with the prejudice and challenges she continues to face. Hopefully, readers will recognize these changes and they will strike true. These stories may have taken place more than a hundred and thirty years ago, but human nature remains basically the same.

Your series is set in San Francisco, your childhood home. Why place your mysteries in a historical rather than a modern context?

I’ve always loved history and historical novels, especially historical mysteries. When I was growing up in San Francisco I devoured books about its colorful past; after all it was, and still is, one of the most exciting cities in the world. I chose 1880 when I decided to make my heroine an attorney. The first female attorney in California was Clara Shortridge Foltz, who was admitted to the California bar in September of 1878. In order to do so, she was forced to write “The Woman Lawyer’s Bill”, then had to lobby the state legislature until it was ratified. Laura De Force Gordon followed closely upon Mrs. Foltz’s victory, becoming an attorney in 1879. Since I didn’t want my heroine to steal any of their hard-earned glory, I decided to begin my series in 1880.

You have ten Harlequin romance novels to your pen name. Does romance play an important role in the series? Is there one particular romantic arc across the series?

Love and romance play a very natural and vital role in our lives. I think a story devoid of passion would be a pretty dull – and unrealistic – read. Sarah has vowed never to marry because she recognizes the difficulties she will face if she attempts to mix a family with a career. For many wives and mothers it’s a tough juggling act even today. Imagine what it would have been like in the nineteenth-century when society condemned any woman who did not recognize her proper place in the world. As Joseph Shepard, Sr., says in MURDER ON NOB HILL when Sarah finagles a job as associate attorney in his law firm, “Everyone knows that the sphere of women, vitally important as that is, belongs in the home.” This vow, however, doesn’t mean that Sarah is in any way anti-male. She possesses all the usual hormones, and despite her attempts to ignore them, they continue to make themselves known. To her chagrin, she currently has two men pursuing her, Robert Campbell and Pierce Godfrey. I receive emails all the time telling me which one she should choose. I’m not letting any cats out of the bag, so you’ll just have to keep reading the Sarah Woolson series to see what happens.

You’re also an accomplished screenwriter having sold movies to major studios. If you had to choose between writing screenplays or novels, which career would you choose and why? How does being a screenwriter impact your novels?

Having done both, I think if I had to choose one over the other I’d pick writing novels. Working in Hollywood is exciting; it truly is a genuine la-la-land. It’s an exciting ride, but there’s always someone looking over your shoulder ready to change your words, your scenes, even your whole script if it doesn’t fit their perception of what should be on the page. As a novelist, you have a lot more control over your material. It may be lonelier and not as invigorating as writing movies, but in the end you’re responsible for your own work. And suffer a lot fewer headaches at the end of the day!

Screenwriting has taught me one invaluable skill, though, and that’s to use words frugally. No scene, or dialogue, should survive unless it’s absolutely necessary to the overall film. You’d be surprised how quickly a 120-page movie can double in size unless you make every word count. It’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned, and continues to help me in writing my mystery series.

How many novels have you planned in your series? Is your next project a Sarah Woolson mystery, a screenplay? What’s next for Shirley Tallman?

I haven’t planned a specific number of novels for the series. I’ll keep writing about Sarah’s adventures as long as I have fresh ideas, and of course readers willing to go along with Sarah for the ride. That’s one of the great things about setting the stories in1880s San Francisco. So much was going on in the city during those exciting years that there’s always a new crime for Sarah to solve.

I’m still working with my screenwriting partner, Nancy Hersage, and we have several projects planned for the future, one of them a new movie. But right now I’m working on the sixth book in the Sarah Woolson series, tentatively titled A KILLING IN CHINATOWN. That’s more than enough to keep me busy for a long time to come!

Wonderful, thanks for your time, Shirley!


Shirley Tallman was born in Los Angeles, but spent most of her growing up years in San Francisco, California. She is the author of sixteen novels, including the exciting Sarah Woolson historical mystery series. She and her writing partner Nancy Hersage, wrote and sold movies to ABC, NBC and CBS. Their movie, THE BABYSITTER’S SEDUCTION, starring Keri Russell, Stephen Collins and Phyllicia Rashad, originally aired on NBC and continues to play regularly on the LIFETIME Channel. Shirley and her husband Bob divide their time between Eugene, Oregon, and Incline Village, Nevada.

You can learn more about Shirley Tallman and her Sarah Woolson mysteries on her website.

Michael F. Stewart
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