“All Souls Law Cooperative works like a medical plan. People who can’t afford the bloated fees many of my colleagues charge buy a membership, its costs based on a scale according to their incomes. The membership gives them access to consul and legal services all the way from small claims to the U.S. Supreme Court.”- Ted Smalley (“The Last Open File,” from The McCone Files, 1995)
They say that behind every good man stands a strong woman, in which case Bill Pronzini can rest easy knowing that "the founding 'mother' of the contemporary female hardboiled private eye" has his back. Marcia Muller has written 29 novels and published two collections of short stories featuring her female private gumshoe, Sharon McCone, who shares her universe with her husbands "Nameless Detective." I realize that mentioning the fact that Muller took home a Private Eyes Writers of America Live Achievement Award should take priority over noting the fact that they occasionally pooled their series detectives, but I really, really love crossovers. I really do.
Anyway, Marcia Muller made a previous appearance on blog when I reviewed Double (1984), in which "Nameless" bumps into Sharon McCone at a conference for private investigators. It was tremendously fun to watch two universes collide and morph into one world, but I had only explored one of them before and therefore missed that small, but essential, part that prevented me from truly appreciating the novel for what it was. I vowed that I would remedy that omission post-haste, but don't pull a third degree on me to get an answer as to why it took six months before I decided to pick up The McCone Files (1995). You should allow some thing to go unexplained.
I expected Marcia Muller to have a similar style as her husband, as both have identified their work as humanistic detective fiction, which is, of course, their main resemblance, but the McCone stories in this collection have without the presence of "Nameless' an entirely different atmosphere. I'm not sure if I can explain this feeling, but the earliest "Nameless" short stories, which, I think, stand the closest in comparison to the ones collected here, have that classical gritty feel – while these stories seem to be written in full-color. I know, it's a lousy way of explaining it, but perhaps it's the way in which Muller use words to paint an evocative landscape or urban setting. It really gives you the feeling that you're right there with Sharon McCone when she's exploring a valley on horseback, wanders through a surrealistically described building where urns are stored or walks up and down the street of a poor and crime ridden neighborhood.
But let's take them down from the top:
The Last Open File
This collection opens with a story of how Sharon McCone, after her previous employer kicked her to the curb, for not taking "direction well" and being "nonresponsive to authority figures," became a staff investigator for All Souls – a legal outfit designed to help the less fortunate in society rather than squeeze a few last bucks out of them. McCone's first assignment consists of tracking down a man who left a young, naïve girl with a stack of unpaid bills and a handful of bounced checks. It's an interesting, open-ended story that will find closure in the final story of this volume.
A mother asks All Souls to help her find her child, a 10-year-old girl named Merril, who went missing after a whirl on a merry-go-round, but she's very reluctant to involve the police and the matter is dropped on Sharon McCone's desk – who grapples with it until she has wrestled the truth from it and as a result may have mended a broken family.
Sharon McCone has a favorite restaurant, situated above the ruins of San Francisco's Sutro Baths, that she likes to patronize with regular visits and during each meal she observes an old Japanese woman, wearing a colored headscarf, scouring the slopes for edible herbs. But when the old woman fails to put in an appearance, McCone begins to slowly lose her appetite and starts' digging around the place – and what she uncovered is one of those unfortunate tragedies that usually merits no more than a few lines on page 3.
The Broken Men
The longest story in this collection, at forty and some pages, has Sharon McCone moonlighting as a personal bodyguard for a famous clown-duo, Fitzgerald and Tilby, during their gig at the Diablo Valley Clown Festival, but when one of them splits and leaves a body, garbed in his custom, in his wake it becomes one of those regular working days for McCone. A well-written story that is a lot closer to a traditional mystery than the ones preceding it and also has a nicely imagined, tranquil scene in which McCone explores the region on one of the gentlest (read: slowest) horses in the west.
Ho-Ling would love and hate this story at the same time!
McCone haunts the ghosts of the Golden Gate Bridge, where "some eight hundred-odd lost souls have jumped to their deaths from its decks," hoping to find a vestige of Venessa DiCesare – a young law student who left a suicide note in her car and disappeared. I'm afraid this was, for me, a somewhat forgettable story and the evocative opening was the only thing that stuck to my long-term memory. Well, they can't all be winners.
Cache and Carry (co-written with Bill Pronzini)
It was a nice surprise when I turned over the final page of the previous story and read that this one was co-written with her husband, Bill Pronzini, co-starring his "Nameless Detective," who Sharon affectionately nicknamed Wolf, and the problem he helps her solving is of the impossible variety! The entire story consists of a telephone call between McCone and Nameless, in which she relates to him the facts in the case of a theft of two grand from a locked and secured room at a Neighborhood Check Cashing – and this suggests that the money never left the room but it was stripped-searched without results. So it’s up to "the poor man’s Sir Henry Merrivale" to locate this apparent invisible cubbyhole. Good, short and simple.
Note that McCone has no clue who H.M. is. *shakes head disappointedly*
Marcia Muller manifests herself in this story as a more traditional plotter and dreams up an ingenious method to administrate poison, in this case, to a young heiress who inherited her fathers multi-million dollar company and came to All Souls because she's afraid that her brother and sister, whose names were conspicuous by their absense in their fathers will, are slowly poisoning her. I, too, suspected that her siblings were feeding her something, such as unfounded suspicions to feed her paranoia and get a court to declare her mentally unsound and usurp the family fortune, but the ending turned out to be quite different – and far more tragic.
All the Lonely People
A series of burglaries has been tied to a dating service, All the Best People, and McCone has filled out one of their application forms and braves the dating scene – looking for a man with a raccoon mask and a stuffed sack flung over his shoulders. As a crime story, it's not spectacular but a lot is made-up with McCone going on actual dates to probe for a lovelorn housebreaker.
The Place That Time Forgot
Sharon McCone is engaged to track down the estranged granddaughter of an old shopkeeper, Jody Greenglass, whose ramshackle store sneaked away from the march of progress and stands steadfastly in defiance of the rapidly changing world around it. McCone goes through the skeleton-stuffed closet of the Greenglass family and dusts off a lot of old family tragedies, but a catchy and soulful tune leads her to the end of her quarry.
Somewhere in the City
On October 17, 1989, a major earthquake that killed over seventy people and injured thousands struck the San Francisco Bay Area. This is the scene in which Sharon McCone finds herself after her last conversation with an anonymous phone caller, who has been making threatening calls to the Golden Gate Crisis Hotline, but when the city began to shake the last thing she heard, before the connection was broken, was a cry for help. Undoubtedly, the most original and fresh story in this collection.
Final Resting Place
A friend of McCone asks her help in finding out who has been leaving flowers at the San Francisco Memorial Columbarium, where the urn encapsulating her mothers ashes are interred, and what the relation of this person was to her mother – and when she begins to dust-off this problem she naturally uncovers another dreadful secret. The best part of this story was Muller's almost surreal description of the Columbarium where urns are stored under a leaky roof.
This Christmas tale reminded me of Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," but instead of going on a wild goose chase for a fabulous jewel McCone spends her Christmas Eve looking for her missing nephew – and finds out how little she really knew about the boy. Along the way she also meets a few of society's misfits who spend their evening alone and makes for a nice, humanistic story.
All Souls is engaged on behalf of Mrs. Angeles, a poor and hardworking mother whose social status condemned her to an even poorer neighborhood, who has been bombarded with death threats – after witnessing a local gang leader being shot. The case is referred to their staff investigator, Sharon McCone, and comes to a conclusion that puts the murder in a whole new perspective. This crime story really benefited from the poor, violent neighborhood that functioned as its backdrop.
The Lost Coast
A local politician and his wife are under siege from a nefarious stalker, who sends dramatically worded death threats and sends floral arrangements suitable for funerals, and Sharon McCone ends up looking into the matter and stumbles over a body before she got hold of the truth – which turns out to be one of the oldest crimes in the book. I wonder if Muller found inspiration for this story in Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin because it strangely felt like one of their cases. Perhaps it was the threatening floral arrangement in combination with the murderer being trapped on an inconsistency in a statement.
Sharon McCone's tenure at All Souls has come to an end and opened up an investigation firm of her own, but as she's cleaning out her old office she comes across her first, unclosed file – and decides to give it one last shot to tie-up all the lose ends before opening a new chapter in her life. This is perhaps the best kind of story to end a collection with.