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.
“Every historical mystery tries to hone in on the ideal setting at the perfect moment in time. Anthony Flacco succeeds on both counts in his first novel ….Flacco imagines the chaos in precise and vivid detail while contributing his own distinctive narrative touch.
--Marilyn Stasio, NY Times Book Review
“…Few literary depictions of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake match the intensity and visceral power of those in Flacco's gripping first novel. The author's screenwriting talent shines in this story of the earth's destructive power and humanity's moral depravity. …The emerging maniacal personality, revealed in increasingly gruesome and venomous detail, rivals the Ripper.…Dickens meets Hannibal Lecter. Brace yourself.”
“Screenwriter Flacco nicely evokes the aftermath of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake in his fiction debut, a novel of suspense.”
“The author does an excellent job of providing a historical novel blended with fiction with the 1906 earthquake as a big part of the story. This one is a real page-turner and I look forward to more in this series. This book is highly recommended.
--Nancy Eaton, EZineArticles.com
"…A fast-moving tale of serial killing…. where Flacco especially shines is in his depiction of the two children, newly orphaned Shane Nightingale and the plucky girl who calls herself Vignette… It's clearly deserving of a very wide audience.
--Sarah Weinman, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
"The Last Nightingale" is the beginning of what could be a fascinating series.
Overall, "The Last Nightingale" leaves you anxiously awaiting the next installment.
--The Freelance Star
"A marvelous page-turner of a thriller set against the fascinating aftermath of the great 1906 earthquake and fire."
-- James Dalessandro, bestselling author of 1906.
"Set in a world on the edge of Armageddon, this is a gripping and completely original thriller that will raise the hair on the back of your neck.”
-- William Bernhardt, bestselling author of Capitol Threat
"From its opening pages–when we are plunged headlong into the terrifying chaos of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906–to its riveting climax, The Last Nightingale offers an abundance of those page-turning pleasures readers seek in historical thrillers: a time-trip through a richly
imagined past, a story that never loosens its suspenseful grip, and a fascinating look at the roots of modern forensic science."
-- Harold Schechter, author of The Serial Killer Files
“Atmospheric, chilling, and with more twists and turns than crooked Lombard Street. The Last Nightingale has it all. I couldn’t put it down.”
-- Cara Black, author of Murder On The Ile St. Louis
THE MORTALIS DOSSIER
Each book from Mortalis will include the author’s special Dossier at the back, wherein the author steps from behind the narrative mask and speaks in detail upon a single aspect of the story.
This is the Dossier from “The Last Nightingale.”
-- A MILLION TINY SLAPS TO THE HEAD --
The first known investigative procedure that can accurately be called a “criminal profile” is frequently attributed to Dr. Thomas Bond in the late 1880s. The London physician was called in to examine the body of Mary Kelly, one of Jack the Ripper’s more savagely disposed victims. Initially, Dr. Bond was only asked to determine whether or not the victim’s remains indicated that the perpetrator had any surgical skill, but the doctor was so horrified by the intensity of the crime that he stayed on to reconstruct the event and develop a speculative description of the killer.
This approach was so unprecedented that there was not even a name for this new system of thinking about the relationship between an individual personality and a specific crime. However, in spite of the apparent novelty, the insights that Dr. Bond employed are all, at their essence, part and parcel of the timeless human capacity for wisdom. The same quest drives the appreciation for the psychological aspects of crime fiction. Avid readers of crime fiction have eyes honed for the vagaries of human personality.
Dr. Bond based his work upon (a) inferences taken from the crime scene; (b) the condition of the victim’s body; and (c) the random nature of the crime. History tells us that Bond’s work did nothing to reveal the identity of The Ripper. Nevertheless, in terms of engendering a whole new way of thinking about the psychology of crime, it was and still is a wellspring that serves anyone who searches for greater understanding of human behavior by accumulating insights into its most deviant forms.
Since the methodology of profiling is one that guides an investigator to a deeper and more three-dimensional view of an unknown subject, those same tools are equally effective in deepening the way in which crime fiction is written. This is part of what makes it so appealing to contemporary readers.
The more commonly known aspects of the field of criminal profiling have entered the Western world’s zeitgeist to the extent that the general public now possesses a language for delving more deeply into motive and into personal point of view in the telling of a story than it has at any time in our past. Today, a well-considered characterization of a criminal profiler will show a flawed individual with feet of clay, perhaps in many ways little different from the quarry.
Perhaps largely due to the effects of TV and film, most people today realize that the reputation for “dark arts” being behind the methodology of modern profilers is simply the result of the startled amazement that often greets a good profiler’s conclusions. The prosaic reality is that the professional profiler merely employs a system of thought created to help investigators think unthinkable things while they do intolerable work, and yet remain focused on their goals and their job functions. The patterns that a profiler is trained to study are the result of thousands of bits of information accumulated over generations of law enforcement experience regarding how criminal behavior tends to work.
The skilled profiler questions how the given criminal behavior (as indicated by the crime scene) served the perpetrator during the commission of the crime. Just as important, the profiler asks how such needs in the perpetrator may have been caused in the first place. Writers of crime fiction have learned to answer these questions also, because modern readers of crime fiction are far more sophisticated about criminal psychology.
Unfortunately, at the same time that public awareness of the profiling field has grown, the use of the word “profiling” in the media has sometimes taken on a churlish political tone. It’s not difficult to see why. Today, that word has been distorted until it covers a range of meanings.
It might refer to the specific field of behavioral analysis taught at the FBI academy, or instead to the use of overbroad physical descriptions for targeting a certain group, or it might even describe the sparking point for spontaneous outbursts of stranger-on-stranger violence. Whether or not these uses of the word are accurate in any given example, as an aggregate they have imparted a politically incorrect aroma to the word profiling that the core concept does not deserve. The fact that certain people or media organizations misuse any term or topic does not diminish its value in more earnest and capable hands.
So let’s assume that today, those capable hands belong to you, reader. Let’s hunt for the meaning of the idea of “profiling” as it applies to you and to me, regardless of what the folks at Quantico are teaching their recruits. And why not? You are a reader of mysteries, ready to pursue the answer to a puzzle through a menagerie of dark fantasies, are you not? Thus you may be “profiled” enough to deduce that you employ a number of skills in your reading and in your daily life that you would also be employing if you were to profile someone in the most educated use of the term.
Scientific profiling simply provides an experimentally verified structure for utilizing natural insights into human behavior. You, reader of mystery fiction, a born profiler, may have figured that out already.
The old-school name for it was “learning to be a solid judge of character,” or words to that effect. But the skill set starts about as far down the mammalian chain as you care to go. You can pick any single example among all the conscious creatures and still be assured that if that creature gets rudely slapped in the side of the head every time it turns to the right, it will eventually adopt a movement pattern that consists primarily of left-hand turns.
It is self-evident that all living things must be expected to choose behaviors that increase their chances of survival, which they will understand to be those things that help them avoid pain. Pain itself is our most powerful message of Don’t Do That.
So let’s not. Instead, let us assume that there is a constructive purpose to be made of the million little slaps to the head that events and people give us, every day of our lives, and try turning to the left for a while, just to see if anything improves. Profiling, then, is the logical extension of that fundamental survival behavior. While the insights provided by good crime profiling are impressive, the results that those same insights can offer to our personal lives are desirable and real.
The very process of living among others of our civilization will guarantee the constant abrasion of cross-purposes and misunderstandings, but we define our social selves by how we deal with such things. At the same time, those daily conflicts teach us countless mini-lessons about others that we file away, without even thinking about it. They become part of the individual database that we each possess–our private shorthand for making quick decisions under pressure. In the making of those decisions, the countless little flashes of memory work together, with the goal of refining our ability to handle passing challenges with a minimum of pain or danger.
That is why, although we must acknowledge that any given group of four or five large and rowdy young men lounging against the corner of an alley are not necessarily drunk and dangerous, no reasonable person would condemn another individual for crossing the street to pass. If the men really are just a few guys hanging out on a corner and not a threat, then they won’t take offense just because someone quietly avoids them. They will realize that the stranger is simply being cautious.
Therefore, those who do cross to the other side and safely pass by can legitimately congratulate themselves; they may not have formed a criminal profile per se, but their natural profiling abilities may well have saved them from an unpleasant, dangerous, or lethal experience.
The problem with profiling, then, is (1) it works; and (2) it is too easy for the general ideas of profiling to be “borrowed,” without having to also acquire the knowledge and skill to properly and fairly apply the principles to the work. We think of young black male defendants insisting that they were pulled over by the police on a charge of nothing more than Driving While Black, or Hispanic citizens caught up in a sweep of illegal immigrants.
In such cases, we know that it is reasonable to at least consider the possibility of bigotry, otherwise such accusations would fade into the same background static produced at any courthouse full of defendants. Whether or not the arrests had anything to do with bigotry or deliberate persecution, when suspects are incarcerated due to errant attempts at profiling, many emerge from the experience deeply shaken and permanently outraged.
Nothing changes the fact that in the wrong hands, stereotyping that is inaccurately called profiling can be used as a tool of bigotry, and that any tool can be turned into a weapon. The fact that the profiler’s tools are powerful should only assure that they are handled with care. There is too much of value there, to avoid it.
In our daily lives, profiling skills allow us to extend our universal right to avoid pain or danger by employing our experiences to help predict future actions. A million tiny slaps to the head–each one a single bit of the data used to sort out the angels from the demons, the talkers from the doers, the safety from the danger.
The commonsense elements of wisdom, old as civilization, are plain to see in the standardized thinking of professional criminal profilers. Consider the fundamental concept behind modern profiling in the United States, today: the categories of Organized versus Disorganized crimes.
These terms can pertain to the crime scene itself as well as to the perpetrator(s), and the FBI teaches this fundamental division of crimes and crime scenes to its trainees. Under this system of observation and conclusion, our unknown perpetrator or perpetrators immediately give away a great deal about themselves, simply by leaving the crime scene in a state that must inevitably fall into one category or the other. The result is a delineation that not only works for crime investigation, but one that is the logical extension of insights that ordinary people have used for centuries to spot potential trouble with others.
THE DISORGANIZED CRIMINAL
When these emotionally driven types go through a crime scene in a frenzy, they reveal a lack of self-control that is fundamental to who they are. These killers will be careless about potential evidence while they are lost in the act of the crime, while the sensations of the moment overwhelm any concern for consequence.
That trait will also extend throughout their lives. Once captured, this person’s physical and social life will undoubtedly reflect an inability to sustain normal habits and a sociable disposition. These perpetrators are generally shown to be persons of lesser intellect, or those whose lives are not dominated by the use of their mind. They can seldom provide a credible character witness who will speak up for them.
Disorganized killers tend to live in a personal state that makes them comparatively easy to spot. They generally do not blend well in polite society. If they do get away from the crime scene, often it is because they break and run, then wander tramp-like for days, weeks, or longer, between places where a desperate person on the run might hide for a day or two. They often go so far off the grid that conventional means of tracking them are useless, making them much harder to locate than other suspects.
Meanwhile, back in ordinary life, we all employ the rudiments of the same insights every day. They are simply more basic versions of those same insights that prompt profilers to expect that a Disorganized crime scene indicates a perpetrator who will display a marked lack of discipline and self-control throughout the rest of his non-crime life. We know that if friends or relatives begin to detach, to become emotionally unpredictable, to let their personal appearance slide, that we are watching someone’s stability crumble. The wild beast that anyone can become under the right combination of stressors will loom closer to the surface as their personal stability collapses.
We need no police training to feel deep concern for any loved one who begins to show signs of deterioration in attitude, in conduct. We see such things and hear internal warning sirens going off in the background.
THE ORGANIZED CRIMINAL
An Organized crime scene may not display obvious signs of organization” as we think of it around the home or office, but the entire scene will tend to display strong and obvious signs of a constant decision-making process that was carried out by the perpetrator throughout the commission of the crime. With the Organized perpetrators, there is seldom if ever a point during the commission of their crimes when they are so out of control that they lose themselves in the moment and do stupid and self-incriminating things.
Once such a perpetrator is captured, experience also shows that they will usually live an otherwise “normal” and acceptable life. They hold workable positions within their level of society. They will have a peer group. The general structure of their lives, in addition to the crime scenes they leave behind, can be said to be organized. The fact that they are less likely to have a criminal record than a Disorganized perpetrator results from their ability to sustain relationships and to put down roots in their community.
But a close look at the human relationships of even the most self-disciplined Organized killer will reveal them as uniformly superficial. Since an individual does not fundamentally change from one situation to the next, even if one’s social behavior skillfully adapts to what is expected, the Organized killers maintain only superficial relationships in life because they do not have the time, energy, or motivation to invest much of themselves into anyone else.
The obligations of honest and open relationships are too complex for this kind of person to handle. The risks of sustained contact and actual intimacy guarantee that sooner or later, something would give it all away and reveal untellable secrets.
They are able to maintain the visage of sanity for the world, so long as nobody looks too closely. This chameleon effect is how they hide in plain sight.
We read about them while knowing that the same dark energy that drives such people to their nightmarish deeds also exists in many other areas of life. Those other areas will, from time to time, present themselves to each of us.
For those bound by conscience, it is not deviance itself that has the power to titillate and thrill; instead, the compelling aspect of crime is that underneath the things we find undoable runs an unending series of glimpses into ourselves. The salient detail of difference being that, unlike the serial killer, we may think destructive thoughts, but we do not act them out. Provoked, we may feel rage, but the physical attack mode is not activated. We are restrained by religious faith, or by spiritual morality, by the desire for an ethical life. We hurt over the knowledge of the pain we might inflict, especially upon the innocent, and so we withdraw from thoughts that never become plans, from plans that never become action. Our own private journey to the brink of our breaking points is set in relief for us by witnessing the extremes of humanity, whether they are deduced from a crime scene by a trained profiler or manifested in the pages of crime fiction.
Isn’t there praise deserved by all who expend the energy to push the depths of their own levels of human insight? Surely we have a solid majority for the idea that it’s better to have more wisdom going around than otherwise. This remains true whether insight is employed via a recognized profiling technique, or simply through an evolving personal life–one that is composed of an ever-deeper understanding of cause and within ourselves.
So where does that leave you and me: we, who dare to love reading crime fiction in a world of interactive video games?
For one thing, it leaves us with the assurance that we cannot help but sharpen up our personal profiling skills in addition to pleasantly passing time. The nature of a story can combine with the author’s manner of portrayal to take us on a tour through the mysteries of human nature, deeper than we ever get to go in everyday life.
We know that a book has been a satisfying read when the insights employed in the story stick with us after we finish it. We enjoy a double payoff. First there is the initial pleasure of sitting with the book for the first time and following the story, becoming engrossed by the characters. Then there is the lingering pleasure of spontaneously recalling moments from the book later, when we are somehow reminded of them in daily life. Our own way of perceiving the world around us will be altered by the insights instilled in the unfolding of a good story. Our understanding of others is broadened, stretched by the characterizations that we follow throughout the book. Most of all, our understanding of ourselves is nudged open another notch or two, every time we recognize within ourselves that point in a character’s actions where we would never go along–or, just as instructively, where we would . . . With luck, we walk away feeling a bit smarter about the world and ourselves.
Readers of crime fiction love more than the twists and turns of a good mystery; they love to pit their individual sense of right and wrong against the driving ethics at work in the story. These readers employ the basic elements of the profiler’s skills while they match
their own predictions against the plotline. Whether they are right or wrong in the outcome, the rewards to be had for sharpening up one’s personal profiling skills are there for any of us.
Every time we finish a book with a net gain in our understanding of human nature, we bring another contribution to society in that our decisions are then filtered through those same profiling skills that we have so recently sharpened. Everybody gains from that, except perhaps for the victimizer types, which means that it all works out fine.
All of this leaves us with one question begging to be asked, and that question is not why we love a good mystery; rather it is why anyone who doesn’t, doesn’t. Don’t they realize that every work of crime fiction that furthers our understanding of others and of ourselves adds to our individual power to move well through this world, through this life?
Maybe some people simply find that accumulating insight into human nature is even more painful than to just hang back and continue to endure those million tiny slaps to the head.
Now there’s a mystery for you.
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 surprise or ambush. The victim’s spinal cord was usually split by the thick blade. Over a dozen such victims had turned up in less than nine months, with never a clue beyond a couple of reported glimpses of a “small-framed woman” seen hurrying away. No one even knew if this woman had any actual involvement in the crimes. That’s how thin the evidence remained, after all this time and all those victims. Blackburn had personally found three of the bodies, on three separate occasions. Every one was castrated with precision and skill, postmortem. Not a single victim was robbed. It seemed as though the taking of the victim’s life and the removing of his useless manhood were enough to complete the desired experience—one longshoreman’s body was even found with a sizeable wad of cash right inside the vest pocket. When the press got wind of the story, with macabre humor they dubbed the killer “The Surgeon.” The SFPD publicly speculated that The Surgeon was almost certainly a physically fit young woman, probably one who had fallen into ruinous ways. Perhaps she grew up on a farm, where she had learned her skill with the knife. Possibly butchering hogs. Since then, on most nights along the Barbary Coast, Blackburn had nothing more for company than the inevitable castration jokes that seemed to come from all directions. The night-beat clientele generally agreed that as long as they weren’t the ones being killed, the best thing to do was to laugh it all off. And since Blackburn was under Chief Dinan’s orders to keep an ear to the street, he had no choice but to spend his nights asking the same questions about the killings, over and over, and listening to the same handful of jokes in response. No one actually voiced open approval, but he couldn’t help noticing that the sidewalk ladies were uniformly ignorant of any useful facts, free of any helpful theories. None was inclined to so much as guess who the ghoulish killer might be. And while they never went so far as to openly cheer The Surgeon’s grisly work, that extra bit about slicing off the cocks of the dead men usually made them giggle whenever the topic came up. As for the killer—Blackburn still hoped that there was only one. But throughout the past night’s shift, with that crazed charge hovering in the air, he had half expected to trip over a collection of bled-out corpses at any moment. He kept fearing that a few of the other violence-prone whores might have started to find The Surgeon’s behavior personally appealing. So tonight he was doubly glad when his shift ended without major trouble. He took extra long strides back to the station, making good time even though the predawn light was absorbed by the fog. With the gas streetlamps still burning at every corner, he could see just well enough to keep up his pace between the isolated pools of weak yellow light while he moved through the chilled mist. The sound of his heavy boot heels ricocheted off the cobblestones and echoed around the silent brick storefronts. The smell of early morning ham and egg breakfasts floated from a number of homes, tempting him to get back home to a meal of his own. He paused to check his silver pocket watch when he passed through a circle of pale gaslight near the corner post office at Mission and Seventh. He was only a few blocks away from the City Hall station, and it was only twelve minutes past five: record time. He liked that. It was as if more of the night’s prickly energy had risen up from the ground and soaked through the soles of his boots with every step, filling him up as fast as he burned it away. He pocketed the watch and started to take a step outside of the lamplight, but just as he lifted his foot, the entire street jerked sideways and pulled itself out from under him. His footing vanished with such power that, for an instant, he thought that he had stepped on some drunk’s sleeping blanket and gotten it snatched out from under his feet. Half a second later, the street’s cobblestone surface jumped up and hit him with the rude force of a blind-side fist in a bar fight. His body slammed to earth and he took the pavement as a full frontal blow, barely reaching out in time to protect his face from the cold bricks. Spots filled his vision and his head rang with waves of pain that throbbed in time to his heartbeat. He heard his own voice cry out, “It’s an earthquake!” even as he fought to avoid blacking out. Instinct brought him to his hands and knees, moving his limbs with natural magic while the ground shuddered under him. But he remained in place. After a boyhood in Northern California, Blackburn had enough experience with earthquakes to know that it wasn’t time to get up yet. He reassured himself that at least he was awake and knew what was happening—he hadn’t been ejected out of a warm bed and onto a cold floor, as most of the city’s residents no doubt were. And most of whom were probably now lost to confusion and panic. Until the rattling died down, there wasn’t any safer place to go. If he moved out of the range of falling bricks or stones from one building, he would only move into range of another. He thought about taking shelter in a doorway, but rejected that. In the heavy stone buildings that lined both sides of this street, a doorway might only prove to be a good place to get buried alive when the keystones gave way. He knew that if any structural damage had taken place during the bigger shock, then a building might only need another little rattle before coming apart. He told himself that with any luck, this first shock wave would be the worst of it. But just as he began to rise from his hands and knees, the street began a hard swirl that threw him onto his side. This movement was much stronger, coming not thirty seconds on the heels of the first shock wave. It rolled with such power that the best he could do was to scramble back down onto all fours and remain there on the ground. Beyond that, the shuddering earth was already telling him everything he needed to know. That first wave, he now realized with a cold rush, had not been the real earthquake. It was only a foreshock. Blackburn did not know if he yelled the words or not. And then it was more than just the idea of a major earthquake that leaped into his mind. It was all the dire implications that went along with it for a brittle city of bricks and mortar. They quickly became real. The violent rolling motion of the earth was joined by a vertical rise and fall. The ground dropped out from under him, then slammed back up again. Blackburn found himself clutching the back of a lurching beast. It was all so unreal that the first icy shot of mortal fear had not even hit him yet. All he knew, at that moment, was that he had never been through an earthquake like this one. Then abruptly, the ground’s vertical movements slowed. All movement stopped. Quiet descended . . . And within seconds, everything was shrouded in a deathly silence. The air felt like a thick wet blanket that did not transmit sound. There was nothing reassuring in the absence of noise. The silence lasted for eight or nine slow heartbeats. And then a deep rumbling began. A pulse throbbed, far beneath the earth’s surface. It was indescribably deep, so low on the tonal scale that he felt it in his bones and deep in his chest. For an instant, his memory flashed a boyhood image of putting his ear to a railroad track, listening for the vibrations of a faraway locomotive. Except now there was no track and no train. This rumbling sound was wrong, completely out of place. It was then that the first burst of real fear stabbed through him, stronger and colder than anything he had ever felt. It cut through his training, his life experience, and at that moment, if the rolling earth had allowed him to climb to his feet, the fear would have owned him and sent him screaming into the night. His instincts already sensed what the rest of him was about to learn. When he glanced down Mission Street, he stared into an impossible sight—a massive surge of energy was running toward him, underneath the surface of the earth. It hurtled through the ground like a wave of curling surf. Solid earth was rolling like the sea itself. His brain seemed to freeze while the invisible monster shot toward him and trailed upheaval in its wake. Brick storefronts buckled and exploded. Granite paving stones blew upward like kernels of popping corn. By the time the energy wave hit him, Blackburn was a paralyzed statue of astonishment. The wave tossed him into the air. When he landed and the street curb crashed into his ribs, the blow knocked all of the wind out of him. Then he could do nothing more than lie helpless: ten seconds, twenty seconds, fighting the sensation that he was drowning on dry land. He rolled onto his hands and knees and managed to take a clear breath, but by then the invisible wave was long gone. The din of destruction overpowered his hearing. Behind him, the roof of the post office was gradually collapsing, and those sounds were only part of a much larger chorus. In all directions, buildings of every size were still shedding their stone exteriors like giant reptiles casting off skin. The ones that collapsed upon themselves expelled thick clouds of dust out the windows and doorways, coughing their guts into the streets before they died. He turned his head in a circle and caught shadowy glimpses of Armageddon. Never since losing his wife and child had Blackburn felt the overpowering need to cry. Now the choking sobs took him as if they had only been gone for a day. He cried out in wordless despair. It was several seconds before he regained control and strangled the feelings back down. The noises around him diminished at the same time that he managed to squelch his own outcries. In a self-conscious flash, he felt thankful to know that even if anybody was awake and looking out of their window and right at him, they were certainly far too distracted to have noticed his slip of emotion.
Excerpted from The Last Nightingale by Anthony Flacco. Copyright © 2007 by Anthony Flacco. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. There seems to be a slight change of focus between Chapters 3 and 4; the action shifts away from the earthquake and its aftermath, toward the mystery of Tommie Kimbrough. What is the effect of this shift? Is it really such a drastic thematic change? What is the relationship between the earthquake and Tommie’s bloodlust?
2. Blackburn is outside when the first shock wave happens, and is therefore in a way separate from the tragedy that ensues. How is this appropriate to his character and what implications does this have for the plot?
3. Around half of the novel focuses on the affairs of the San Francisco Police Department, who are the first responders. What effect does this have on the narratological perspective and the attitudes/behaviors of our main characters? How does this narrative style affect the reader in a way that is different from many other stories?
4. What were the first priorities of the police when responding to the earthquake and fires? Did these historically accurate concerns surprise you?
5. What does this novel say about emergency and the human condition? Did the responses of some San Franciscans (such as looting and self-preservation) surprise you? Did they remind you of the aftermath of emergencies you have seen in recent news (e.g. Hurricane Katrina)? What are some similarities and differences?
6. Let’s talk about males and protection/preservation of the domestic sphere. Blackburn is relieved to see the neighborhood still intact, while everything else burns. Shane feels guilty that he didn’t defend his adopted mother and sisters. Father Nightingale leaves home to check on his store, rather than protecting his family. What does the story say about the role of the male as protector? What effect does the repeated shirking of male roles have? What sort of template for male behavior does Blackburn provide?
7. Do you see any symbolism in the title? Why do you think Shane Nightingale is the titular character?
8. What do you make of the group that Shane travels with immediately after the earthquake? They seem to make organic decisions with little or no conversation. Why do you suppose the author depicts them behaving in this way? What does this reveal about trauma and coping methods?
9. When Shane joins the workers’ group, their first job is to restore the Mission and its graveyard. Although none of the characters is overtly religious, what is the role and importance of religion in the novel? For the individual characters?
10. Regarding corruption within the religious sector and amongst the religious authorities in the novel, are there as many cases of good religious people as there are of bad ones?
11. What are some of the similarities between Shane and Blackburn? Why do you think the author chose to make them parallel (or complimentary) characters?
12. How does Shane’s character develop throughout the story? Is he redeemed from his terrible burden of guilt at the end?
13. Why do you suppose Kimbrough supported Shane during all the years he was in the orphanage? Why didn’t he support Vignette?
14. Patterns of treachery and loyalty run throughout the story. Is it sometimes surprising which characters are treacherous and which ones are loyal?
15. When Shane helps to solve the murder case involving Elsie Sullivan, Blackburn is amazed by his powers of perception. At the end of the story, Shane torments Tommie by recalling Tommie’s painful past to him. Does he really remember Tommie’s past?
16. Do you feel any sympathy for Kimbrough? (How about in light of the information presented in the Dossier about disorganized criminals?)
17. In the Dossier, the author claims that readers of crime fiction love more than the twists and turns of a good mystery; they love to pit their individual sense of right and wrong against the driving ethics at work in the story. Which ethical issues in the story affected you most deeply?
18. The Last Nightingale addresses many moral issues such as loyalty, virtue, altruism, and duty. Which character/s did you find most inspirational or admirable?