RogerBW's Blog

While Other People Sleep, Marcia Muller 15 October 2022

1998 mystery, eighteenth in Muller's series about Sharon McCone, private investigator in San Francisco. This time there are two separate cases: Sharon's secretary Ted is suddenly being secretive and angry, and someone seems to be passing herself off as Sharon…

Yup, Muller continues with her model of doing a deep research dive on a particular subject and then producing a book about it; this time it's stalkers and identity theft. The A and B plots are unusually spaced; the two run in parallel at first, each of them driving home the idea that this sort of thing can't be solved by acting on one's own, but the found-family (in this case of McCone's investigation agency and allies) can help sort things out; then a little over half way through, the B plot is wrapped up by a group effort, and McCone goes off solo to deal with the A full time.

(Also there are various actual paying clients; they're mostly straightforward, but it's pleasing to see the routine work of the agency as well as the Big Case that makes up the meat of each book.)

Perhaps because so much of the research comes out on the page, I sometimes felt I was being lectured to; yes, maybe one individual stalker would do all these things that fake-Sharon does, but is it really likely? Does one really get someone who's highly detail-focused and able to plan things out over a process of months, but also subject to frequent wild mood swings over trivial events? I don't know. Perhaps. Seems like a thing about which someone who didn't know the subject would say "hang on, that's a bit odd isn't it", but nobody does.

I very much enjoyed the action when Sharon finally did get to go after her stalker, but perhaps the theme that by imitating Sharon the stalker had made her mental processes predictable to Sharon was harped on a little too often. And the climactic sequence… well, Sharon is unsatisfied with the way it came out, and so I suppose it's the author's intention that I am too.

After all, I can for once say without spoilers that the A plot is basically "a loony did it, for their own reasons which don't make sense to a sane person" – and that's a ferociously hard plot to make interesting. The narrative is very much in the victim's viewpoint here, and that helps, but someone who is unbalanced doesn't feel like a worthy opponent for Sharon to be testing herself against, no matter how much harm that person has done.

(Also a minor aviation hiccup: people talk about headings such as "three-one". In fairly extensive study of aviation voice procedures, I've always heard it as the full number of degrees, as "three-one-zero". I know Muller is a pilot and unlikely to be getting this wrong, but it was certainly jarring.)

There are some very fine moments here, but the overarching structure felt as if it couldn't quite support the action; I wonder whether the B plot was squeezed in to try to provide some structural bracing to the first half.

One could work out roughly who's who of the returning characters and why they do what they do, but I'd recommend not starting here; at the very least Wolf in the Shadows and The Broken Promise Land would give some of the emotional background.

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See also:
Wolf in the Shadows, Marcia Muller
The Broken Promise Land, Marcia Muller

Previous in series: Both Ends of the Night | Series: Sharon McCone | Next in series: A Walk Through the Fire

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 07:10pm on 15 October 2022

    Clarity of numbers is important over the radio for aviation and related fields. Craig Breedlove had the fastest car accident in history at over 600 miles an hour because when the Black Rock control centre said side winds were gusting at something like "One Five Knots" he interpreted that as being 1.5 knots and went ahead with his run, and the wind turned the car on its side. If he'd been properly familiar with the aviation procedures the control centre were using he'd have known that 1.5 would have been "One Decimal Five". Andy Green driving Thrust SSC had no such problems being an RAF pilot at the time. I may have the exact numbers involved wrong, it's the type of misunderstanding that is relevant.

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