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.

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