RogerBW's Blog

There's Something In a Sunday, Marcia Muller 09 December 2016

1989 mystery; eighth in Muller's series about Sharon McCone, private investigator in San Francisco. Sharon's assigned to follow Frank Wilkinson as he spends his Sunday going round the horticultural high spots of San Francisco. But her client's obviously lying about why he wants the job done, and soon he ends up dead.

Which means that for the majority of the book Sharon has no assigned case at all, just her own curiosity. It's a bit directionless: she isn't the Chandleresque sort of noir PI who takes a dead client as an insult to her honour, and the police naturally don't want to encourage her to be involved, so it's really only her inquisitive and stubborn nature that's driving her here.

This is also a book largely without sympathetic characters: everyone's done something at least slightly discreditable, and towards the end I found myself not really caring whether anyone would be caught, or indeed survive. Sharon's, and the book's, mystery puzzle is not putting together clues as much as getting people to talk: even the small-town policeman, who professes to open up to Sharon after she trusts him with what she's learned so far, is keeping something back. Working out the killer's identity is more a matter of elimination – it wasn't X or Y, and Z is the only other person we've met – than of determining means, motive or opportunity.

Really this is more of a sociological observation than a mystery, of a San Francisco tumbling into the 1990s, scratching off the last bits of its hippie skin and indulging in yuppiedom. Everyone is depressed, but drinks expensive wine. The names for the coffee keep getting longer. Several people are on the verge of suicide; there are no gay people at all; the homeless are a significant presence in the story.

There's plenty of San Francisco detail, including Golden Gate Park and the Flower Market. I can't vouch for its authenticity, but it feels observed rather than invented.

Given how much bed-hopping makes up the background of this story, I could have done with a bit more description of the characters, to get an idea of which pairings the author considered plausible; some age or appearance gaps are apparently so insurmountable as to make relationships impossible and not worth considering, while others can be casually ignored.

Subplots involve Sharon getting an assistant, which they both handle very badly, but just about patch up by the end; and her boss being unhappy in his new marriage, which isn't resolved at all.

The main story is clearly set up to have a Twist rather than being foreshadowed; it does all more or less make sense once the core plot's been revealed in the rather abrupt ending, but there are plenty of dangling strings that could have done with tidying up.

In the end it's all a bit ragged and unsatisfactory. I'll probably read more, but this wouldn't have engaged me with the series if it had been the first one I'd met. Followed by Shape of Dread.

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