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The "Founding Mother"


   Sue Grafton has called Marcia Muller the "founding mother of the contemporary female hard-boiled private eye." She began writing about a female PI in the mold of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe in 1977 -- five years before Grafton's Kinsey Millhone and Sue Paretsky's V.I. Warshawsli joined what was to be a major trend in mystery novels in the late 20th Century.

   Marcia Muller was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1944. She earned a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Michigan. Upon graduation, she moved to San Francisco to work for Sunset magazine. Later she was a freelance journalist, writing feature articles for a number of publications, before taking up mystery writing. She is the wife and sometime coauthor of mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

   Muller published her first mystery, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, in 1977. The novel introduced Sharon McCone, investigator for the All Souls Legal Cooperative in San Francisco. Her investigation of the murder of an antique store owner who had been stabbed with a dagger from one of her display cases uncovers a variety of suspects. The only witness cant speak because it is a little-boy mannequin with iron shoes who she names "Edwin of the Iron Shoes." The characterization is excellent and the evocation of an inner city neighborhood is point on. As a whole, the writing is clear and to-the-point in thius well-crafted mystery. Muller tells a good story and carefully wraps up each loose end, revealing the killers identity only at the end.

   The Sharon McCone tales that followed have all been good but, in my estimation, none has equaled this outstanding debut.

   The debut of another series impressed me just as much as had Edwin of the Iron Shoes when I read Point Deception (2002). The story begins with a common enough situation, the car driven by a young woman named Chrystal has broken down forcing her to pull off the road on an isolated stretch of a coastal highway and no one will stop to help her. Among those who pass her by is Deputy Rhoda Swift responding to another call rather than assist the stranded woman. When Chrystal's body is found, washed up along the coast, Deputy Swift is one of many locals who experience guilt feelings about their lack of good Samaritanism.

   The murder stirs up uncertainties and fears that had arose from an earlier tragedy. Almost exactly thirteen years before, the coastal community had been shocked by the massacre of two families in Cascada Canyon near where Chrystal's car had broken down. Deputy Swift, then an inexperienced rookie, was the first on the scene and she has never recovered from the experience. Although they've learned to live with the fact that the murder has never been solved, and probably never will be, the locals can't get over the fact that the murderer is most likely one of them. This new death only serves to stir the whole thing up again, especially when two other townswomen die. It is only gradually revealed that the locals are correct in their instinctive connection between the murders, separated though they are by thirteen years.

   As in all of her novels, Muller displays a great talent for bringing her characters to life. This is as true of lesser supporting characters as it is of the two protagonists. I found her verbal portrait of Deputy Swift's father to be particularly believable and touching.

   The girl Chrystal, whose car broke down, is presented in a highly sympathetic manner if not portrayed as an especially nice person. In an unusual authorial device, Muller intersperses throughout the novel a number of flashbacks to Chrystal's experiences before the opening scenes of the novel. This means that the reader knows more about what happened than do the protagonists at most points in the novel. Such a technique could backfire badly but Muller makes very effective use of it.

   Deputy Swift, the protagonist of the story, is a complex and troubled character who makes a fine detective. She collaborates with true crime writer Guy Newberry, a man who is also scarred by past tragedy. The two of them get nearly equal page space and one is left hoping that the team will return soon with new mysteries to solve.