RogerBW's Blog

Double, Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini 25 November 2015

1984 mystery; sixth-ish in Muller's series about Sharon McCone, private investigator in San Francisco, and at the same time fourteenth in Pronzini's "Nameless Detective" private eye series. Both detectives are at a convention of private eyes in San Diego, McCone also visiting her family and an old friend who's now head of hotel security. But then the dying starts.

Chapters alternate between first-person narration by McCone and Nameless, and presumably between writing by Muller and her frequent collaborator and future husband Pronzini. This works quite well; the two characters have distinct voices, and if one were dropped into a random chapter one would be able to work out fairly quickly who was speaking. The two detectives are working what may be two ends of the same case or two related cases, but the narratives remain firmly linked, as the principals go off on their various strands of investigation in their particular styles, then come back together and share information.

There's some background detail for both of them: McCone is visiting her family, and in particular dealing with her wastrel brother who's planning to embark on an unwelcome child custody battle. Nameless is meeting a fellow pulp magazine collector, and gets occasional calls from his partner back in San Francisco. None of this is terribly significant, and mostly it seems to serve as padding.

The convention setting is also unconvincing; not only does it sound deadly dull, but there's apparently no programming in the afternoons or evenings, and I started to wonder why it was here at all. Still, it allows the authors to name-check Kinsey Millhone (of Sue Grafton's A is for Alibi and sequels), and probably to refer to other fictional investigators whom I didn't recognise. (Though it does seem a bit odd that, at a gathering of PIs, nobody else is interested in the unexplained deaths; I thought this was going to go in a completely different direction, with bumbling amateurs interfering and generating false leads.)

On the other hand there's clearly a great deal of location research involved: the Casa del Rey hotel feels as though it was probably based on a real place. There's an odd house in the California desert which also seems likely to have been drawn from the life, and a sequence with one of the narrators moving across that desert while short on food and water feels plausible. Technically things are a bit more shaky: the material on hotwiring cars is good, but when an automatic pistol is empty the slide locks back, and it doesn't keep going "click" when you pull the trigger.

All this is combined with some fairly meaty plots: there are connections between the various deaths that aren't obvious, and everything does make sense, though in places it relies on the villains being foolish. At least they're foolish in character. One major plot point that's supposed to be a surprise was far too obvious to me from very early on, and there's the pattern I've seen before in Muller's writing that anyone who isn't strictly conventional about their personal lives is some sort of inadequate weirdo and probably a murderer, but she (born in 1944) at least has a bit more excuse for it than do modern TV writers.

I'm not inspired to go off and read the Nameless Detective series, but this is a reasonable entry for McCone, even if it does get off to a bit of a slow start.

Followed by There's Nothing to Be Afraid Of.

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