In 1906, San Francisco has reached the peak of its golden age. Fortunes have created a society that attracts European opera singers and cordon bleu chefs. It is a world defined by elegant balls, oysters, and champagne. But there are darker sides to the city as well. The Mission district south of Market Street houses tenements where shanties huddle together and rats plague the streets. And nearby sits Chinatown, an endless warren of dark alleys that offers gambling, prostitution, and opium, all controlled by vicious gangs, called tongs.
Into these disparate worlds steps Marta Baldwin, a young woman who has shunned her own social background to help the poor. She is confronted by a hypnotist, a man who hypnotizes young women from the tenements and delivers them to the tongs in Chinatown to work in their brothels. Marta escapes his hypnotic trance, but when her assistant, Missy, disappears, Marta realizes she has been taken by the evil man who confronted her. She seeks the help of Byron Wagner, one of San Francisco’s most prominent citizens. Marta finds herself drawn to Byron but knows his high social standing prevents any possibility of a relationship between them.
Marta is caught up in a whirlwind of opulent balls, opium dens and brothels, and police raids in Chinatown. She cannot deny her feelings for Byron, but she must save Missy and protect her new friends from harm. For lurking in the background is the hypnotist. He has become obsessed with Marta and will use all his guile to ensnare her. When he threatens those she loves, Marta is determined to stop him, even at her own peril. Will her boldness entrap her? If so, how can she hope to escape the man’s hypnotic embrace? Then the earth trembles, and Marta’s world will never be the same.
The Hypnotist by Gordon Snider is my first foray into early twentieth century San Francisco and during the Great Earthquake to boot. Well, in a straight historical fiction sense at least, as I adore Mercedes Lackey’s The Fire Rose, which is set at the same time, but has a whole different explanation for the earthquake! But the synopsis for Snider’s novel sounded intriguing and the strong bonds of friendship between women that seemed at its core were a strong draw as well. Snider certainly delivers on the latter, but The Hypnotist wasn’t always an easy or pleasant read for me, mostly due to its prose.
I found myself having a hard time reading for long stretches of time and at the same time having a hard time picking the book back up when I had been away from it. It was as if it took me a while to sink back into the writing and the rhythm of the book before the reading got easy again, yet to get to that point was hard, as I kept drifting away. To be fair, this struggle with concentrating might also be on me, as I was really tired and just starting my vacation when I read the book; a different reader might not have this problem at all. But for me it created a choppy and uneven reading experience, which drew away from the book’s wonderful characters and interesting story.
The Hypnotist’s strong suit is its protagonist, Marta Baldwin. Marta is a fabulous character, whose drive and independence jump off the page. I really liked her spirit and her determination to manage her own life and not be defined by the men around her. The way she stood up for herself, to her brother and other men who patronise her, was wonderful and sadly even over a hundred years later very familiar. I also liked her very modern conviction that it was better to teach the impoverished how to budget and manage their money than just giving them a one-time handout. And that one of the main steps was making sure that not all the money was blown on payday on booze and other entertainments, preferably by having the wife manage all of the finances. She’s also fiercely loyal to her friends and not afraid to reconsider her opinions on people, such as happens with Angela Cummings, the society wife who falls from grace.
Marta isn’t the book’s only unconventional woman, she is joined by the ineffable Lillie Collins, a young socialite who is anything but conventional or demure. I adored Lillie and her ‘take charge, can do’-attitude. She is loud and brash and couldn’t careless about society’s bad opinion, though both she and Marta acknowledge that she can only afford to be due to her affluent background. Marta’s assistant Missy is a clear counterbalance, as she can’t afford to be anything but respectable and even then is vulnerable to popular opinion, just as the afore-mentioned Angela, who is dropped from society when her husband leaves her.
Snider’s female characters were far more interesting to me than his male characters. While Byron is definitely sympathetic, I had a harder time with Byron’s friend Charles, who rubbed me the wrong way due to reasons best left out to avoid spoilers. Similarly, I had a hard time with the Hypnotist. Snider wrote his point of view in the first person and seemed to be trying to create a sense of sympathy for this awful man due to his past, but it had the opposite effect on me. I really disliked him and I found his point of view hard to get through, always being glad when we moved away from him and back to another character.
The plot of The Hypnotist is quite interesting. The reader is presented both with the mystery of Marta’s trying to discover who the Hypnotist is and with a story arc dealing with Marta’s struggle to gain control of her own financial circumstances and inheritance and saving her house. The culmination of the story in the Great Quake was very well done and I found the passages dealing with Marta’s passage through the wrecked city some of the most powerful scenes in the novel. The utter devastation of San Francisco and the fires and survivors roaming the streets created an almost post-apocalyptic impression.
While I struggled with the book, in the end it was a worthwhile read and one whose protagonist was quite memorable. Marta, and Lillie too, were the highlights of the book and they are certainly the sort of characters I like to read about. If you enjoy a mystery starring a smart, independent woman then The Hypnotist definitely provides that in spades.
Monday, July 20th: The Reading Cove Book Club
Tuesday, July 21st: A Wondrous Bookshelf
Thursday, July 23rd: Dwell in Possibility
Tuesday, July 28th: It’s a Mad Mad World
Thursday, July 30th: Raven Haired Girl
Monday, August 3rd: The Bibliophile Chronicles
Tuesday, August 4th: A Fantastical Librarian
Wednesday, August 5th: 5 Minutes For Books
Thursday, August 6th: Books That Hook
Monday, August 10th: Book Nerd
Thursday, August 13th: Mom in Love With Fiction
Friday, August 14th: Bibliotica
Monday, August 17th: A Reader’s Oasis
Friday, August 21st: Kahakai Kitchen
TBD: Lauren Hearts Books