RogerBW's Blog

Games to Keep the Dark Away, Marcia Muller 12 December 2014

1984; fourth in Muller's series about Sharon McCone, private investigator in San Francisco. McCone investigates the disappearance of a famous photographer's roommate, which leads to secret goings-on in a decaying coastal town.

Where the previous volume The Cheshire Cat's Eye was sometimes detached, this book's much more in the moment; Muller's style is settling down, and while I've enjoyed her earlier and more experimental work I think she's found a good voice here. McCone has dumped her domineering boyfriend, which also helps: after three successful cases, he really ought to be believing her when she says that the murder is more complicated than it looks, but if she were able to fall back on the police this would break the structure of the private-eye story. And the structure is followed: McCone is generally one or two steps behind the villain, close enough to know there's a trail worth following but unable to prevent further crimes.

The real strengths of this book are the characters and the scene-setting, especially in the old resort town with its abandoned amusement park and the small fishing village nearby. There's plenty of digging into past sins, whether in the town, the village, or the nearby hospice. As for characters, even someone who never appears alive comes over as an interesting person; everyone McCone meets has something to say, and ends up seeming like someone real who happens to be caught in the flash of light that's this investigation. Apart from one somewhat stock Tired Waitress, they seem like people who would go home to their families and carry on living even after the author's observation has moved on.

One aspect hasn't aged well, or perhaps it's a national characteristic: there are several infodumps about what a hospice is about, which may have been necessary in the USA in the 1980s but seem heavy-handed to this modern British reader. Other material suggests that for Muller at least this was a lot to take in, and certain truisms weren't even starting to crumble, no matter how shaky they look to a modern reader.

The book is quite short, but the case is slight enough that it couldn't really support a longer narrative as it stands; a longer book would have become padded and florid.

Followed by Leave a Message for Willie. I'm still enjoying this series much more than I liked the later… well, don't call them imitators, but Kinsey Millhone and V. I. Warshawski weren't as enjoyable to me as McCone has been so far.

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