Woman of Ill Fame by Erika Mailman. There is a murder mystery that snakes its way through this story, but the bulk of this narrative is the normal life of its main character, Nora Simms. From the moment she arrives at San Francisco’s docks during the Gold Rush year of 1849, Nora struggles to establish herself as a successful prostitute. Having left her family in Boston behind, she begins in the lowest ramshackle cribs serving all manner of men, but has dreams of moving upwards into plusher parlour houses with more respectable clientele. As her own quest for wealth progresses over those first few months, she finds all manner of people from besotted suitors to hypocritical neighbors; skeptical landlords to hard-hearted madams. And hidden in the darkness is a killer of “soiled doves” who seems to have a personal connection to Nora.
Mailman, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes a local history newspaper column, does a wonderful job of presenting the gritty side of the Barbary Coast city that was still not quite civilized during its infancy and changing rapidly with the large influx of profit-seekers of all professions, including the oldest in the world. Written as a first-person account from Nora herself, the language is quite coarse at times and the depictions of the violence and sexual situations are vivid in their detail, but they add to the drama and tension of the story.
Historical mysteries frequently involve prostitutes as the victims of violence, but rarely do they play the part of detective. Roberta Gellis’ Magdalene la Batarde is a rare exception. The madam of an exclusive brothel in 12th-century London, she also conducts investigations for her landlord, the Bishop of Winchester. Although she does not earn her living on her back, Madeleine E. Robins’ main character Sarah Tolerance lives in a cottage behind a London house of pleasure run by her aunt during the reign of “Mad King George” in 1810. Both series are relatively short, but of high quality, especially Gellis’.