(1849 California Gold Rush)
William Martin remains one of the most accomplished purveyors of historical fiction today. In his new novel, BOUND FOR GOLD, the sixth in his Peter Fallon series, the Boston book dealer and his girlfriend Evangeline Carrington become caught up in the search for a lost journal that will transport them to the mid-nineteenth century California gold rush. Employing his traditional approach of alternating historical information from a specific period with the present Martin has written an engrossing novel that is based on sound historical research and a novelist’s eye for fine detail.
Martin begins his tale with James Spencer, an eighty-three year old scion of wealth confronted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and resulting fire. Scared, Spencer races to his office as the fire approaches to save his journal and other personal papers that recount his and his wife’s role in building California. As Spencer travels to his office he witnesses the devastation that the earthquake and approaching fire have caused. Martin effectively describes the damage to historical buildings and sites through Spencer’s eyes. What separates Martin from other writers is that each page of his novels wreak of history, no matter the plot line, character, or any given situation.
The corruption, greed, and lawlessness of 1849 San Francisco is on full display. As Martin takes the reader into the river beds and mines that men explore for gold as the most negative aspects of human nature come to the fore. Martin’s creation of James Spencer’s journals provides a vehicle to disseminate his story and introduce numerous characters, many of which are unsavory, naive, and somewhat honest as they set out from Boston for the gold fields of California.
The Sagamore Mining Group headed by Samuel Hodges hires the “William Winter” captained by Nathan Trask to transport his men west. Others are included, especially Jason Willis who would like to set up a mercantile trade using California as his base of operations instead of panning for gold. James Spencer, hired by the Boston Transcript to provide coverage for articles about the discovery of gold bears witness to all events and machinations as they sail around the Cape of Good Hope and arrive in San Francisco. Upon their arrival Martin shifts his focus back to the 21st century to Peter Fallon’s son LJ, who is a lawyer for a major San Francisco law firm travels east to inform his father that he was overseeing the liquidation of the Spencer estate for his law firm. He asks his father to appraise the Spencer rare book collection and a number of manuscripts. The problem is that among the papers is Spencer’s journal describing his observations of the 19th century gold rush which have gone missing. Spencer’s great-grandaughter placed a codicil in her will that stated that before the estate could be liquidated, all seven original sections of the journal, scattered among his heirs had to be gathered and digitalized. Each of the heirs had their own agenda and Maryanne Rogers, the great-granddaughter had been killed in a hit and run accident in a crosswalk as she was crossing the street to meet LJ’s boss, Johnson Barber.
Martin introduces numerous characters from the 19th and 21st centuries to carry out his plot. Janiva Toler, Spencer’s wife; Samuel Hodges the head of the Sagamore Mining Company; Michael Flynn, an Irish waiter, who resents Bostonian wealth will become Spencer’s partner; Cletis Smith, late of the US Army, another Spencer partner; Manion Sturgis who owns a winery in the gold region; Wei Chin, a member of the anti-Manchu Sam Hi Hui who escaped China for America are among the 19th century contingent. Mary Ching Cutler, LJ’s fiancé; her father Jack Cutler; Chinese gang interests in San Francisco; Johnson “Jack” Barber” LJ’s boss; and William Donnelly, a retired Kern County detective are among the 21st century notables. The dominant figure of course is Peter Fallon who as in all Martin’s previous historical renditions is a solid figure who employs a sarcastic and somewhat humorous approach to life as he works to solve the mystery of the stolen journal that documents Spencer’s quest for fortune and alludes to a mythical river of gold. The diary supposedly reveals the location of an actual river which could set off a modern gold rush, and Fallon is up against present day elements ranging from the Hong Kong Triad, winery owners, Chinatown thugs, and even people with an environmental agenda who want to control any new discoveries.
Martin effectively intertwines his historical saga with a contemporary story. His work follows on two tracks one reaches back from 1849 toward the present, and the other works toward the past from the present. The key is when the two tracks meet. Martin introduces numerous powerful men in the novel as well as explores San Francisco and its multiethnic citizens. BOUND FOR GOLD is a story of racism, rough justice and occasional kindness, and if you enjoyed any of Martin’s previous Fallon adventures, his latest will not disappoint-as Martin remains a superior story teller.