City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley – Review

Book Jacket:

February, 1940. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, fireworks explode as the city celebrates Chinese New Year with a Rice Bowl Party, a three day-and-night carnival designed to raise money and support for China war relief. Miranda Corbie is a 33-year-old private investigator who stumbles upon the fatally shot body of Eddie Takahashi. The Chamber of Commerce wants it covered up. The cops acquiesce. All Miranda wants is justice–whatever it costs. From Chinatown tenements, to a tattered tailor’s shop in Little Osaka, to a high-class bordello draped in Southern Gothic, she shakes down the city–her city–seeking the truth. An outstanding series debut.

You can read an excerpt here.


This book just nailed me to my chair. City of Dragons is pure, authentic noir, and never once while I was reading it did I pause to compare it to Chandler or Hammett. And it wasn’t just because I was too caught up in the story, though that was certainly the case – it was because I never before have seen true period noir told from a woman’s point of view. Stanley has delivered a story that is both a tribute to classic noir and a sly rebuttal to the less than subtle chauvinism inherent in the genre – but never once does Stanley falter towards a modern tone or perspective. This book is NOIR, as utterly authentic as the books written by authors who lived in that era, yet at last we get to see the world of that time, and the conventions of the genre, from a different point of view – and that is the alchemy which makes this book undeniably brilliant.

Stanley is a huge fan of noir, both on the page and on the screen, so it’s no surprise that this book is exactly what any noir fan could wish – hardboiled, tough as shoe leather, and full of shadows, without and within. Miranda is as world-weary, alone, and true to her moral code as any classic noir hero – except Miranda is, as Kelli Stanley says, a femme fatale in gumshoes. As a former escort, Miranda’s life has been far from easy, but she takes the hits and keeps on coming. Her looks are her ticket, and she knows it – and she isn’t shy about using them to her advantage, though she knows full well just how much of a double edged sword that can be. Damaged, tough, and beguiling, this leading lady more than deserves a series to call her own.

I can’t say this strongly enough – this book is not at all a feminist treatise on chauvinism. There is no preaching, no object lesson here. City of Dragons just deftly and stunningly portrays the day to day realities of a woman living in the 40’s, physically and culturally, and it makes for a fascinating window into a different era – what it looked like, felt like, even smelled like. The 40’s have come alive for me, after reading this book.  

Stanley also brings home the many shades and flavors of the ways in which a man will treat a beautiful woman, and all the implications therein – it makes for a razor sharp portrait of social mores, then and now. I absolutely loved how Miranda’s beauty both enabled and hindered her, and the many ways in which her former escort status was thrown in her face. It was a fantastic reversal of that classic noir paradigm, the good man being led to ruin by an evil temptress – here the femme fatale gets her life ruined just as easily by the ways in which men want to possess her, and I can’t say enough how fantastic it is to finally, finally see the other side of this story. 

And of course, it must be said that the historical detail in this series is downright phenomenal. Stanley is a Classicist by training, and her talent for (and experience in) research delivers a wealth of layers and detail that imbue this story with an undeniable ring of authenticity. Stanley in particular shines a light on the little known repercussions of the Sino-Japanese War, and it makes for a fascinating foray into our neglected past. So often in historical mysteries I don’t get a genuine sense of time and place, but this book is absolutely teeming with historical accuracy, and it brings an even brighter shine to this story.

This story is pure grit – visceral, tough, and unapologetic. A hard drinking dame sets out to solve a kid’s murder, come hell or high water, and it makes for one hell of a good book. Miranda calls them like she sees them, only she sees things very, very differently than the classic leading man – and therein lies the brilliance of this book. City of Dragons is simply the best noir I’ve read in a long, long time. You don’t want to miss this one.

Byrt Grade: A+

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

RT Book Review says:

Center stage is private investigator Miranda Corbie, a feisty gal with tons of attitude. She might be hard-boiled on the outside, but you never forget she’s a lady. The noir atmosphere of 1940s San Francisco is so brilliantly recreated you’ll swear you can hear the music, taste the food and feel the desperation of many that Miranda comes in contact with. Stanley sharpens anticipation for what comes next.

Fresh Fiction says:

I’d say that City of Dragons reminded me of 1940’s film noir, except that instead of the dreamlike black and white noir shadows, everything about the novel is in living color. You can almost experience Stanley’s world with all five senses. Her re-creation of the time and place — 1940 San Francisco’s Chinatown — couldn’t feel any more authentic. It’s her details that draw you in, but her story keeps you turning the pages until the ending that slowly and cleverly takes you by surprise.

SF Gate:

Narrating the journey in bravura first-person style is Miranda herself: a wised-up tough gal whose prose sings with the cadences of early Hammett, middle Chandler, the outraged Walter Winchell and the young Herb Caen.