Agony Column Commentary


Shaking the Mystery Novel Tree
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini at M For Mystery
The Agony Column for August 9, 2004
Commentary by Terry D'Auray

Scene of the crime fiction.
M for Mystery, the exceptional specialty mystery bookstore in San Mateo, California, hosted an in-store event with husband and wife mystery writers Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. If the old quip about California is true – "shake a palm tree and a P.I. will fall out" – then Muller and Pronzini are definitely contributing their share.

This is a prolific writing due who each publish one or two books a year and who collaborate on another one or two annually. Between them, they're coming up on the 100-book mark, with joint promises not to slack off on the pace. Their literary productivity, awesome as it clearly is, is far overshadowed by their literary quality that remains consistently on top of the genre heap, whichever genre that may be.

Pronzini has penned multiple westerns (and used some six pseudonyms) along with his long running standard bearing "Nameless" detective series. Lesser known, but definitely in the not-to-be-missed category for any mystery reader, are Pronzini's two hilarious non-fiction works reveling in the unsung failures, the bad writers, of detective fiction, 'Gun in Cheek' and 'Son of a Gun in Cheek'.

The best of the worst.
('Six-Gun in Cheek' gives equal time to bad western writing.) Many years ago, faced with yet another "relocation", I went through a fierce and frenzied book purge and sold both of these. Much later, older, wiser and now embracing excess as a good thing, at least when it comes to books, I of course had to buy them both back. The effort was neither easy nor cheap. Like you haven't done that?

Back in 80s, Sue Grafton (having just started her assault on the "alphabet" mystery series) described Marcia Muller the "founding mother of the female hardboiled private investigator" – a label now so often repeated as to probably warrant a proper burial. Grafton got it half right. With the debut of Sharon McCone in 'Edwin of the Iron Shoes' in 1977, Muller did indeed launch the first U.S. female detective series, and twenty-five years and 22 books later, the McCone series is still winner in the mystery genre. But Muller's series is not "hardboiled", never has been hardboiled in the traditional meaning, and Muller has never succumbed to the need to make it so.

The first Sharon McCone mystery now sells for about $175.00 in HC.
Leave it to others to write about tough/tender loners who store a bottle of bourbon in their desk drawer, strew bodies with abandon and wisecrack their way through wild monosylabic dialogue and even wilder plots. Muller thankfully sticks with her gift of creating realistic, believable, well-plotted, character-intensive mysteries with a female detective. Muller, too, has a western under her belt in addition to her Sharon McCone series, her new Soledad County series and two other three-book series with female protagonists.

And in their spare time, Pronzini and Muller write short stories and edit anthologies. Between the two of them, they fill a ceiling-to-floor bookcase in my house, and will soon ooze into "overflow" space should I be able to find any.

They are, in person, an appealing, relaxed and humorous pair with a natural and easy affection and not a hint of competitive nudge. Assured and mature, each knows their strengths and each supports and edits the other. It was obvious in their bantering that they know and care about each other's books as well as they know their own.

Short stories of the old West.
Psycho thriller -- qu'est que c'est?
Pronzini was discussing his newest releases – yes, that's plural, 'Burgade's Crossing' (Five Star, $25.95) and 'The Alias Man' (Walker Publishing, $24.00). 'Burgade's Crossing' is another collection of western short stories featuring John Quincannon, former US Secret Service agent and Sabina Carpenter, the widow of a Pinkerton detective, who have joined to form Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services. Crippen & Landru published an earlier collection of Carpenter and Quincannon stories back in 1998, a book well worth trying to chase down. Set in the old west of the late 1800's, these stories are steeped in western history, thoroughly researched and entrancingly presented, and laced with a romantic tension, unfortunately highly one-sided, that's tantalizing and entertaining without being treacley or overdone.

'The Alias Man' is a first for Pronzini, a psychological thriller with three main protagonists who are all female. While it's challenging for "he" to write "she" believably, Marcia swears he got it right and he swears that his creative difficulties, much to his surprise, arose from plotting (which, I suspect, he can do in his sleep) not characterization. 'The Alias Man' is the story of a wily and unscrupulous seducer whose three latest female victims team up to seek justice (or is it revenge, or is it both). Given Pronzini's active imagination and propensity for unexpected twists and turns, it's got to be a winner.

Muller read briefly from her latest Sharon McCone novel, 'The Dangerous Hour' (Mysterious Press, $25). The McCone series is one of the few long-running detective series that has gotten better over time, with consistently solid plotting and prose, and an ever-changing cast of supporting characters and believable circumstances.

The latest Sharon McCone novel.
To Muller's credit, there's not a cut-and-paste retread in the 23-book series. McCone has aged and changed with grace and authenticity, has clearly developed a better taste in men, and each book is reliably readable and certifiably enjoyable. Muller recently began a new series set in Soledad County with the novel 'Point Deception'. She promised the next, a book called 'Cape Perdido', would be forthcoming.

Q&A followed the reading and convivial banter between Muller and Pronzini, and the first question surprised absolutely no one. "To Mr. Pronzini. Will there be another "Nameless"? Thank God he gave the right answer – not only one more "Nameless", but two, already written and ready for release. Pronzini's new publisher, Forge/Tor, has not yet announced the publication date, but he brought the new book jacket, an enormous and well-warranted step up in classy design.

Also promised, the release of the entire Nameless series in paperback –way too long in coming. Question two, a two-parter, also not a surprise to anyone in touch with the genre: "To Mr. Pronzini. Will you keep writing Nameless books?" (The demise of Nameless was, like Mark Twain's death, inaccurately forecast a couple of years' back.) His answer – yes. "Will you ever kill him off?" No. I slept well that night.