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Marcia Muller
The Dangerous Hour
Mysterious Press / Time Warner Book Group
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-892-96804-4
Publication Date: 07-28-2004
290 Pages; $25.00
Date Reviewed: 09-14-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004

Index: Mystery  General Fiction

It's always better — but not always possible — to read a series from beginning to end, especially for an interviewer or a book reviewer. But when you first dip into a series-in-progress, you can often get a better sense of the quality of the writing that carries the series. If you're not invested in the long history of the characters, if all you have to judge the book upon are the words in the single volume, and not all those that preceded it, then you can actually get a better idea of where the author is as a writer than you'd be able to if you'd read everything the author has written. It's certainly an excellent way of divining whether or not you'd like to read the rest of the series, to become involved in the lives of those characters you've just met.

In 'The Dangerous Hour', her twenty-third Sharon McCone novel, Marcia Muller makes it perfectly clear that her writing is the real star of this respected series. With no preamble, no knowledge of the characters' history, 'The Dangerous Hour' is a fine, involving novel about a woman who has reaped the rewards of a long, successful career — a high potential for catastrophic failure. Sharon McCone is no longer a solo investigator roaming the streets in search of the clues that will solve a client's problems. She's the manager of a sizable small business with numerous long-time employees for whom she feels a parental responsibility, though she herself is not even married. McCone Investigations is doing well — too well. So when Julia Rafael, an employee with a checkered past, is accused of credit-card fraud, it's not just Julia who is threatened. The entire business stands to go belly-up if McCone can't clear Julia of charges. McCone begins to suspect that someone is out to ruin not just her business, but her life.

From the first paragraph of this novel, Muller's prose stands out as a model of narrative transparency, effortlessly and enjoyably transporting the reader into McCone's first-person perspective. Though there's a lot of history that leads the large cast of characters up to the point where 'The Dangerous Hour' begins, Muller manages to make every relationship crystal clear with brief exchanges. She keeps her character and the novel so focused on matters at hand that the complex background picture simply fills itself in with the same precise clarity of the foreground events. Muller's prose — McCone's voice — is funny and tough. It's amazingly easy to read, and though this novel was very tough to put down, it doesn't seem slick or facile. Muller's language has both class and sass.

McCone — as revealed by Muller's language — is a woman pretty much any reader would like to meet, smart, perceptive and witty. She's surrounded by a large cast of characters who are all easily distinguishable even if you don't have their obviously deep history to hand. Muller does a particularly good job in portraying McCone's rather uneasy relationship with Hy Ripinsky, her long-time lover who has finally proposed, making McCone very uncomfortable. After all, here's a woman who is clearly able to commit herself to a huge staff, a woman who lays her life and livelihood on the line for a new employee. But McCone is also rather vulnerable and hesitant when commitment means marrying Hy.

Those whose interests lie beyond the well-wrought protagonists will find a nicely fashioned nasty ex-con at the heart of events in 'The Dangerous Hour', and a number of nuanced walk-ons who surround the antagonist. But Muller is careful to avoid the kind of pornographic details that can make readers extremely uncomfortable. She's not trying to scare her readers, but the threats she offers are prone to do more than leave a neat little bullet hole in the forehead.

With language that's particularly and joyously clear and characters we enjoy being around, the plot still provides a crucial element to complement them. Muller keeps everything very low-key and naturalistic. There are no James Bond villains here, and the stakes are personal — the survival of McCone's PI biz. The low-lifes are just low-lifes and they're not writ large. But the pieces fit together so smoothly — like the prose — that seeing them click into place is immensely satisfying. For those who prefer mysteries of the clue-clutching variety, Muller offers a number of hints as to what will prove to be important to the novel, but she doesn't leave a trail of bread crumbs. McCone has to investigate her own past, but once events are set in motion, there's a palpable tension that keeps the pages turning even faster than Muller's beautiful, translucent language.

For this reader, the latest Sharon McCone novel leads neatly back to the first one, 'Edwin of the Iron Shoes', and her new location-based series of Soledad Country stories. For readers who have enjoyed her other novels in this series, it's my estimation that 'The Dangerous Hour' will provide the perfect number of enjoyable hours of reading.

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