San Francisco, 1906. The great West Coast city is a center of industry and excitement-and also, to many, of sin. When the Great Earthquake hits, some believe it is the day of reckoning for the immoral masses.
Meanwhile, twelve-year-old Shane Nightingale is witness to the violent deaths of his adoptive mother and sisters-not from the earthquake, but at the hands of a serial killer. As Shane wanders the city appearing to be just another anonymous orphan, he keeps what he has seen a secret. But when his path crosses that of Sergeant Randall Blackburn, who is in pursuit of the killer, the two become an investigative team that will use both a youth's intuitive gifts and a policeman's new deductive techniques and crime-fighting tools to unmask a vicious murderer whose fury can be as intense as that of Mother Nature herself.
Screenwriter Flacco nicely evokes the aftermath of San Francisco's 1906 earthquake in his fiction debut, a novel of suspense. On the eve of the disaster, Sgt. Randall Blackburn, perhaps the one honest cop on the San Francisco force, patrols the grim Barbary Coast neighborhood, which has been plagued by a serial killer, whom the press has dubbed "the Surgeon," who castrates his victims. After the quake, Blackburn joins the frantic rescue efforts, in the course of which he meets 12-year-old Shane Nightingale, whose adoptive mother has been murdered by the Surgeon. In the rubble, Shane and Blackburn pursue the Surgeon, whose identity becomes known early on. Through the fiend's demented perspective we learn of a plague he plans to loose on the devastated city, but this plot line gets lost in the shuffle. The action devolves into a routine cat-and-mouse chase, building to an ending some readers will find maudlin. (June)
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June 11, 2007
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Excerpt from The Last Nightingale by Anthony Flacco
CHAPTER ONE Wednesday, April 18, 1906 5:12 a.m. The First Shock Wave Randall Blackburn’s muscled frame did not strain at the long uphill hike, even though the route led from his policeman’s beat in the waterfront district all the way back to the City Hall Station. At thirty-two years of age, he was able to power his long legs up the steep terrain with such speed that he could leave his beat at five in the morning, traverse more than a dozen blocks uphill, plus a few short connecting streets, and still be at his desk with enough time to jot down a brief nightly report and quit the shift by six. The strenuous hiking routine usually helped to calm him down after a long night. This morning, it barely had any effect. He was coming off of an unusually rough beat patrolling the “Barbary Coast” district, whose grand name was a façade for a strip of bottom-feeder saloons and dead-end flophouses down near the waterfront. The whole night had been filled with more violent rampage and general disturbance than he had ever seen on a single shift. He spent most of his shift dodging punches from drunken gamblers and avoiding knife blades flashed by syphilitic whores. Their mania was contagious among them all night long and more so with every passing hour. He had never gotten used to the place, even though the dangerous foot patrol assignment was routinely meted out to him by his station chief. Blackburn realized that the continual Barbary Coast beat was intended as some sort of an ongoing affront to him, and that it was being done for the benefit of the rank-and-file officers. He just didn’t have any good ideas as to what to do about it. His reputation as a widower who was far too obsessive in his police work naturally pleased the upper brass, but it also placed a lot of pressure on fellow officers: men with families, lives away from the job. Then some bright soul up in the command office figured out that with Blackburn’s overactive code of ethics, he would work just as hard in the dangerous district as he did anywhere else. And so week after week, the dreaded assignments sent a morale-soothing message to the rank and file: Don’t worry about Sergeant Blackburn, no matter how much of a fanatic he might be. Look at where he is. Nothing matters unless the right people like you. While he strode along the sidewalk, Blackburn tried to tell himself that the real reason he constantly drew the graveyard shift and the Barbary Coast assignments was because of his superior physical capability. But a voice in his head accused him of being the author of his own predicament. The back of his neck tightened at the unwelcome truth of it. On any night, it was a relief to leave the district behind at the end of a shift. That was especially true this morning; it had been a real “ladies’ night” along the Barbary Coast, and between the women and the men, the street corner hags were by far the most dangerous. Those bottom-rung females lived in a drunken haze, battered by lives of nonstop torment. He approached every one of them knowing that they would eagerly offer sex to a policeman to buy his tolerance, or just as eagerly snatch away his sidearm and shoot him in the face. Most were prepared to either live or die in the attempt, and it was all the same to them. Lately, while he kept a sharp eye out for their flurries of random rage, he also knew that the Department strongly suspected that at least one of these doomed women had somehow become highly skilled at throwing heavy-bladed knives. Blackburn himself had seen the grim products of the mysterious killer’s work. Each of her victims had almost certainly fallen to the same knife, which left identically deep and wide cuts. The crime was always committed as a fast kill, always under cover of darkness. The consistent knifepoint entry at the back of the neck indicated surpris