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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 14, 2007
_The Cliffhouse Strangler_, Shirley Tallman's third Sarah Woolson mystery, revolves around a murder at a seance. As Sarah attempts to solve the mystery several participants (and suspects) are murdered, thickening the plot even as the list of possible murderers is narrowed down. While working on "who done it", a charming sub-plot develops between Woolson and her earstwhile love interest, Robert Campbell, as they represent opposing sides in a divorce settlement. What appear to be red-herrings are not necessicarily so, as divergent characters and tangents are in one way or another related to the mystery at hand. This story will keep you guessing to the end.

The historical fiction elements of the book are great- from the descriptions of 1880's San Francisco to the details of dress, an atmosphere of authenticity is lent to the larger mystery itself. Tallman tends to lay on the gender and social inequalities of the period a bit thick at times, ("women are physically and emotionally incapable of comprehending such matters. Go home and knit something and leave business like this to your betters.") but it is exactly the intelligence and strength of characters like Sarah Woolson facing and overcoming these attitudes that draw me to the series.

In the final analysis, its a great summer (or airplane) read - the loose ends are tied up, the wrong-doers get their due, and gradually (begrudgingly) the heroine gets some respect.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2007
The Cliff House Strangler continues the Sarah Woolson series with a great story that provides the many twists & turns that we have come to expect from Ms. Tallman. Her characters & settings convey a story that makes you feel as if you have returned to San Francisco of yesteryear!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2009
Shirley Tallman's genius in "The Cliff House Strangler" lies in her connecting all the dots (in this case, the relatives and other characters) but leaking out the true nature of those connections only in the process by which the riddle is solved. The story begins with a seance held by a trio of suspicious-appearing Russians (in 1880, Russians in San Francisco were suspect simply because they were Russian--what else is new?) in the middle of which a seance participant/obnoxious newspaper columnist is garroted with a string from a floating balalaika.

As the plot unwinds, it reveals other family and social issues that are as prominent today as they were 130 years ago--the defined and restricted role of men and women, e.g., the frequent reference to subservience of women as wives and mothers, not professionals. Author Tallman's heroine, attorney-sleuth Sarah Woolson, is clearly more logical and adventurous than men in similar professions but is duly dismissed by men, lawyers and police as well as male and female family members who believe she would be better served if she made herself more available to marriage and settled into housewifery.

While these expected role assumptions might have stalled Sarah Woolson's pursuit of the murdering stalker, Tallman prevents that likelihood by killing off more people both in and out of jail. I personally found the fascinating way she manipulates the somewhat stereotypic characters, chauvinistic men, critical in-laws, and over-protective parents is what saved the novel from itself. Rather than giving in to her critics, Tallman has developed Woolson as a credible and sympathetic attorney-investigator with a mind of her own. We believe her and believe in her--she is likable and the reader worries about her as she walks where "angels fear" and takes risks which sometimes lead to physical as well as verbal abuse.

Among the most satisfying aspects of the book is that although "whodunnit" is solved with surprising twists and turns, Shirley Tallman leaves the reader pieces of the puzzle and its cast of characters with rough edges to be thought about after the last page is read. Finally, too, although these times are somewhat different from 1880, this book causes readers to think about important social issues and perhaps become more sensitive to equity in human relationships.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
In the 1880s in San Francisco, attorney Sarah Woolson has left the prestigious firm of Shepard, Shepard, McNaughton, and Hall to begin her own practice over the objection of her lawyer boyfriend Robert Campbell. He objects even louder when she persuades him to accompany her to Cliff House for a séance hosted by Russian psychic Madame Karpova on a stormy night. Eleven guests in all including Senator Gaylord and his wife attend.

Madame Karpova sets the mood and seems to be talking with those from beyond as she performs a dazzling array of parlor tricks. However, uninvited gate crasher columnist Darien Moss whose scorn causes Dmitry Serkov to leave in disgust decides to expose her as a fraud when the lights go out; when they return he is dead strangled by a balalaika string. Sarah investigates with Robert at her side trying to keep her out of trouble while her brother and father abet her efforts even when more séance attendees die.

The third Woolson historical tale is more of a whodunit than a legal thriller though a subplot involving an abused spouse with a child fleeing from an alcoholic husband is stunning. The excitement and sense of time and place remains strong (see MURDER ON NOB HILL and THE RUSSIAN HILL MURDERS). The story line is fast-paced as Sarah seems to be battling ghosts, gypsies, gulls, and government in her effort to uncover the culprit. With homage to Christie's And Then There Was One, readers will wonder who did it and why

Harriet Klausner
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2007
"As a matter of fact, despite your obstinacy, your infernal prying, and the fact that you invariably blurt out whatever comes into your head, regardless of the consequences, I admit that there are times when I find you irresistible, too." These words, spoken by irritable Scotsman, Robert Campbell, describe our plucky young heroine, Sarah Woolson, as she makes a name for herself as one of the few female attorneys of her time, late nineteenth century San Francisco.

The third installment of the Sarah Woolson series starts with a bang. In a brougham driven by Eddie Cooper (one of Sarah's latest good deeds), Sarah and her "colleague" Robert venture out in the middle of a thunderstorm to The Cliff House at Lands End to observe a visiting Russian clairvoyant. Sarah's brother, Samuel, has sent his sister on this mission to gather information for an article about the mysterious, Madame Karpova. Mayhem ensues, murders occur, and Sarah finds herself in the middle it all.

While all this is unraveling, Sarah is visited by a perspective client, Alexandra Sechrest, who is seeking custody of her two sons and a divorce from her abusive husband. This case puts Sarah at odds with Robert and at the same time renews Sarah's commitment to help the women of San Francisco get a fair shake in the legal system. There's also the concern that her brother, Senator Frederick Woolson, might have become involved in some nefarious doings that could ruin his career and send him to jail and the worry that Sarah might not survive long enough to defend any of her clients. Through it all, Sarah manages to keep a cool head, help the less fortunate, teach the illiterate, pay social calls, and make time for tea and cakes, provided by good neighbor, Fanny Goodman.

As always, Sarah's friends and family are either cheering her on or giving her grief for her efforts. We also see a little romantic tension between Robert and Sarah, although Sarah's ineptitude in this area can be irritating at times. There's mention of super suitor, Pierce Godfrey, who's busy building an empire abroad and only corresponds with Sarah through letters. Family friend and policeman, George Lewis, interacts only briefly and not at all romantically with Sarah as she investigates various crimes. That leaves Robert Campbell as romantic prospect numero uno, as I think most readers have always wanted.

While I liked this book, I felt The Russian Hill Murders was slightly better in terms of pacing and interaction between characters. I look forward to another installment of the series and am left with the following questions:

Will Robert get a clue and offer a situation that is appealing to our independent heroine? Will Sarah accept anything less than an equal partnership in business and in love? Who will change nappies if the team of Woolson and Campbell combine forces to serve the citizens of San Francisco? Could other characters, like Eddie Cooper, Yelena Karpova, or Samuel Woolson, carry their own book? Hopefully Ms. Tallman has the answers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2007
This author stories keep getting better and better. Her series is a breath of fresh air: A step back in time mystery that is a real page turner. The book is a mixture of subtle clues mixed with historical period details and well developed characters. The story moves right along keeping you interested in what will happen next. Eagerly awaiting her next book about Sarah.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2007
Shirley Tallman writes amazing historical fiction because she is such a top-notch researcher. I love the flood of accurate details she provides for all of her books - as I'm reading, I actually feel as though I am living in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1880's. Her characters come alive during the story and her plot lines are complex and enticing. This series is absolutely wonderful!
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on September 20, 2014
This is the third in the Sarah Woolson mysteries. If I could give this review a 3 1/2 stars, I would. The mystery is engaging with many interesting twists and the writer does a nice job of giving the atmosphere of San Francisco without making it sound like a travel brochure. The main character is a great feminist character as well.

The reason why I give this book 3 stars is because of two reasons.

The first is the character of Robert. Even though he's a main character, he never evolves realistically like the other characters. Even though he's appeared in all 3 books in the series, he is still sputtering around like a pompous jerk for most of the story and being dim about the obvious. That was fine in the first book, but considering that he accompanies Sarah on her investigations, you would expect him to be a little more supportive. It feels like the author thought she needed to bring in a character that was close to Sarah but constantly battling her, so his character feels contrived. So the potential of the character (and Sarah's relationship to him) is totally lost. Because of this, his character also seems contradictory. One minute, he is accusing Sarah of having an "active imagination" making connections that are obvious and the next, he is accompanying her, helping her in the investigation with relish.

The second is the prose style of the author. Although this book is more historically authentic in the word choices and tone than Book 2, The author continuously gives "stage directions" to the reader, punctuating most sentences with obvious adjectives guiding the reader how he/she is supposed to understand what the characters are saying or doing. For example, rather than let the reader understand that a character is avoiding a question by his/her dialogue, we're told this directly (this isn't an exact example, but a prototype). The first two books also suffered from this but the third one seems to really lay it on thick so that it's distracting and makes the reader feel as if they aren't capable of interpreting the character's reactions and emotions by themselves. It also makes the story quite choppy and difficult to get through. This might be excusable in the first book, but in the third, I was disappointed to see that the writer didn't seem to improve at all.
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VINE VOICEon March 21, 2013
This is the third in the SARAH WOOLSON, series of historical cozies set in 1880's San Francisco. Sarah, the youngest child of a respected judge, has chosen a much different life than most of the other young women of her time. Rather than becoming a socialite, filling her time with endless social obligations while waiting to find a suitable husband, Sarah has pursued a career. Even more distressing to her family she has not sought out an appropriate 'woman's' career focusing in the arts, or education but rather a 'man's' career, specifically law. Sarah has successfully passed the California Bar exam (an accomplishment that her brother Charles has yet to achieve) and, after working for a time as a law clerk, opened up her own practice. Sadly not many are willing to seek the services of a woman lawyer, leaving Sarah to wonder how much longer she can keep her office open. Little did she realize when she agreed to accompany her brother Charles to a seance that she would shortly acquire more clients than she knew what to do with. As Sarah attempted to juggle her various cases we are given a view of a vastly different time in our society, a time when women were not allowed to vote, when divorce was consider scandalous and when children were considered their father's property.

The various plot lines are handled well, with plenty of twists along the way to keep the reader guessing. The author has managed to weave the cozy elements of Sarah's family life, the mystery aspects and the historical background together to make an interesting story. There are a few historical inaccuracies though, in 1881 a gentleman would have appeared in evening attire as tuxedos were still years away, to name but one. Still this is a good read, one that is entertaining and that also give the reader a bit to think about.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 8, 2007
First Sentence: "I can't believe I let you talk me into this!" Robert Campbell grumbled.

Nineteenth-century attorney Sarah Woolson has opened her own law office and has her first two cases. Sarah and her friend Robert Campbell, attend a séance conducted by Russian clairvoyant Madame Olga Karpova and attended by several prominent San Franciscans. During the séance, one of the attendees, a reporter, is murdered. Other attendees are subsequently attacked and murdered and Sarah is hired to defend Madame Olga's brother. Sarah's second case is for an abused woman. Obtaining a divorce from the husband is relatively simple. More difficult is trying to gain custody of the two sons, particularly in light of the lack of women's rights and the husband claiming his wife had been a drunkard and adulteress.

Tallman knows how to incorporate historical events, social issues, political intrigue and murder into one engrossing mystery. I love the character of Sarah, a smart and determined young lady who has become an attorney in an age where women had few rights. I also enjoy the dynamics of Sarah's family, but find Robert, her friend, almost too much of a contrast; his stubbornness becomes annoying. The only small bone I have to pick is the book opening with a severe thunderstorm; something that rarely happens in San Francisco. This was a very enjoyable book with enough complexity to keep the story really interesting yet all the threads nicely tied up at the end.
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