Saturday, March 24, 2012

Locked In

Marcia Muller essentially invented the female PI sub-genre when she wrote Edwin of the Iron Shoes in 1977. Unlike her more famous contemporaries, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, Muller has never taken a break from her character or (IMHO, of course) experienced a serious slump. The San Francisco based investigator drinks her wine with a Retcon chaser to smooth over a few biographical issues (28 at inception, McCone turned 40 in 1999 and is maybe 5 years older a decade later, and while Muller still mentions the years in which McCone's former brother-in-law Ricky Savage was a struggling musician, the allusions are now vague fleeting), but Muller has also introduced new characters and allowed McCone's career to evolve so that there are few reminders of the 60s radicals with whom Sharon worked at the All Souls Legal Cooperative.

Muller has also begun to play with the traditional PI novel structure. Her prior installment, Burn Out, found McCone struggling against debilitating depression and taking on a pro bono case almost as a lifeline. Six months later, she's regained her footing, personally investigating cases which interest her and delegating most of the administrative work to her assistant, Adah Joslin. Returning to her office to retrieve her cell phone one night, McCone walks in on a burglary and is shot in the head. Miraculously, she survives, and wakes up ten days later unable to speak or to move anything but her eyes. Her employees believe the burglary and shooting are related to one of their recent cases so they search for and reopen those with red flags (the cold case of a murdered prostitute, an identity theft expert whose identity has been stolen, a missing persons case, a brutal knife attack on a financial advisor, and *something* odd at City Hall). This allows Muller to shift POV every few pages as four investigators follow the disparate threads, regularly reporting to Sharon who, in the end, manages to solve her own attempted murder.

I really enjoyed Locked In. The Rear Window To Eleven premise was new and interesting, and Muller built an exquisite puzzle with a logical, easily supported solution which she revealed only a page or two after I guessed what happened. There's a reflective quality to the book, as you'd expect when one of the six narrators can think clearly but can communicate only through blinking, and it left me thinking about Sharon's history.

I have all but the first three McCone novels sitting on my shelf (I loaned those to an administrator in law school and never got them back), and maybe it's time to re-read the series. 1977 is almost a foreign land, and even the early-90s installments I read after catching up on the backlist take place in a strange place without cell phones or widespread use of the Internet. Sharon was different, too - the product of Berkley at the height of the protest era and a city girl who's firmly planted on the ground. While still politically progressive, she's now a licensed pilot who spends her free time at her remote ranch and is more interested in environmental issues. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am with Muller's skill in allowing Sharon to evolve so dramatically over the course of the series without a single jarring shift in character. There's an academic analysis in there somewhere - or would be, if genre fiction were taken seriously.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Explosive Eighteen

Maybe Janet Evanovich needs to slow down. Explosive Eighteen made me laugh out loud (as Stephanie Plum's adventures always make me do), but the story never hung together. At the end of Smokin' Seventeen, Steph flew to Hawaii, but with whom - Ranger or Morelli? The answer was neither...but things got complicated. On the way home, her seat mate slipped a photo into her bag, left the plane at LAX, and was murdered. So now Steph has hit men, the FBI, and her family pressuring her to come clean about her vacation. On top of that, the bail bonds office still hasn't been rebuilt, she's having trouble with the low-level FTAs that pay her rent, Joyce Barnhart is making her life miserable (again), and Grandma Mazur has joined a bowling team headed up by Annie Hart who thinks Steph needs a love potion. There's a mix-up or two with the love potion, the shooting of a wig, a discussion of the physical resemblance between Tom Cruise and Ashton Kutcher (no, I don't see it either), and the most skeevey thing Vinnie Plum has ever seen - but not much of a plot. I recommend skimming the dull bits and slowing down when you start to giggle.

Taken at the Flood

It still surprises me how many Agatha Christie novels I managed to miss. I've re-read a few so often that they're nearly committed to memory, and others have sat abandoned on my bookshelf for decades. Taken at the Flood is one of those abandoned Christies, and it might have remained frail (my copy is a 1972 paperback bought used some time in the early 80s) and alone on my shelf if it weren't for a read-a-long in Ravelry's Agatha Christie group. Gordon Cloade was a wealthy man whose less affluent relatives (two brothers, a young cousin, and a middle-aged cousin and her daughter) depended on eventually inheriting his estate. Unfortunately, he married a young actress and soon died intestate, thus leaving his estate to his widow. She appears to be a soft touch for her late husband's money-seeking family but her brother is made of sterner stuff. There's blackmail, railroad timetables, and Hercule Poirot's little grey cells - everything you expect from Christie, but I'd rate this outing as middling. I didn't find any of the characters particularly engaging or entertaining, and the ending seemed more contrived than usual. Perhaps it's because Christie ventured out of her comfort zone - in most of her books, even the down-on-their-luck aristocrats retain their aristocracy, and even during the Great Depression and World War II, socialites act like socialites. Christie wrote this shortly after the war ended but with rationing still in full force. Perhaps she felt that she couldn't ignore the threadbare existence around her, but it just doesn't feel like "Christie."

The Outcast Dove

I read a few mid-list mystery series - books that don't make the best seller lists but apparently sell enough copies for the authors to keep the series going for a decade or more. That's what I loved about Borders - a 'big box' has the shelf space to carry the second and third tier authors, and will even have copies of their prior installments.

Sharan Newman is one of these authors. I 'found' her at book 5, and bought the next three installments as they came out. By the time The Outcast Dove (the 9th in the series) was published, the big boxes were in trouble and I eventually stumbled across my copy in the Daedalus catalog. It's been a while since I spent any time in Catherine LeVendeur's 12th Century France, and in that time, I'd lost track of some of the family relationships. Catherine's father Hubert was Jewish and forcibly converted as a child, one of his brothers escaped and eventually became his trading partner, and a third brother voluntarily converted and became a monk after disowning his son Solomon who eventually went into his uncles' business, taking over Hubert's partnership when the older man returns to his Jewish faith.

The Outcast Dove is a solo outing for Solomon, although he encounters both his father and Hubert, as well as a knight named Jehan who was once engaged to his cousin's sister. Luckily, the plot does not hinge on knowing the relationships between the characters because if it did, I would have been totally lost. While on a secret mission to free a family friend's fiancee who'd been kidnapped and forced into prostitution, Solomon must also discover who murdered another friend's prospective son-in-law and guard an unbalanced woman another associate is returning to her family. That may sound like a bit too much plot, but Newman ties the three lines - and a personal matter of Solomon's - quite neatly. The killer is a surprise, but fully supported by the preceding 300 pages, and most of the characters have a happy ending. I enjoyed The Outcast Dove, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd read it either with no knowledge of the rest of the series or without a 5+ year gap since the last installment.