Saturday, November 13, 2010

Coming Back - Marcia Muller

I’ve been reading Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone novels for almost 30 years. Sharon McCone was the first of the female PIs in the tradition of Sam Spade & Philip Marlowe. Marcia Muller’s early books were published by The Women’s Press, a great feminist publishing house that had a fantastic crime list. There have been many other female PIs since, especially in the 1980s. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone & Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski are still going strong but most of the others have long since disappeared, replaced by forensic pathologists like Kay Scarpetta & Tempe Brennan.

Sharon McCone is a private investigator in San Francisco. Back in the 70s she was working at the All Soul’s Legal Co Op, steeped in the social justice ethics of the 1960s. I loved the All Soul’s days. But, times changed & the Co Op was taken over by lawyers who wanted to make a profit, the atmosphere changed & McCone struck out on her own, eventually starting up her own company, McCone Investigations. The business has grown, the technology has kept pace with the cutting edge, the new employees have become familiar.

It’s interesting to read both Muller & Grafton’s series. The Kinsey Millhone novels are still set in the 1980s, they’re almost historical novels now. Kinsey uses pay phones & index cards rather than mobiles & computers. She trots along to Government agencies trying to get information using her contacts & smart talking instead of tapping into a database. I love the fact that Kinsey has stayed in the 80s, it’s part of the charm of the series. But, I don’t regret that Sharon McCone has moved with the times.

Keeping a long series fresh for the author as well as the reader must be a constant challenge. In the last book in the series, Locked In, Sharon had been shot in the head by an intruder & was seriously wounded. She had locked-in syndrome & spent the whole book only able to communicate by blinking. Surprisingly, this worked really well. I was amazed at the clever way Muller took us inside Sharon’s mind while also moving the investigation along through shifting the point of view around between Sharon’s husband, Hy Ripinsky, her operatives, Craig Morland, Adah Joslyn, Mick Savage (also Sharon’s nephew) & Patrick Neilan. By the end of the book, Sharon had emerged from locked-in syndrome but still had a long way to go physically & mentally before she would be back to her old self. In the sequel, Coming Back, Sharon is still at the beginning of that long journey.

After several months of rehab, she’s still struggling with the repercussions of the trauma she’s suffered. Fiercely independent, she is reluctant to ask for help, which infuriates Hy & her family. She stubbornly uses inefficient public transport inside of asking for lifts as she can’t drive. She works at her rehab as hard as she works at anything else in her life & is frustrated by her lack of progress. Her employees are frustrated by her moods & her refusal to let them help her. Some of them are also concerned that the old Sharon will never come back. Is the new Sharon fit enough for the job, physically & mentally? When Piper Quinn, a young woman she met at rehab goes missing, Sharon’s instincts sense trouble. Piper had been the victim of a hit & run driver, just getting back to work with a new apartment. When she doesn’t turn up at rehab, Sharon visits her home, only to find Piper semi-conscious on the couch & a strange woman who claims to be her aunt, hustling Sharon out the door as fast as possible. Sharon goes back the next day to find the apartment empty, stripped of everything, freshly painted & Piper is gone.

Sharon gets the investigation moving but when Adah Joslyn goes back to check the apartment again, she is attacked & then kidnapped, presumably by the same people who made Piper disappear. The investigation uncovers the fact that Piper had been married to an marine stationed in Iraq. She had filed for divorce & then he was killed in a roadside bombing. However, the way she was kidnapped & the apartment cleaned up suggests a covert intelligence operation by rogue agents who can’t let go of the more unsavoury aspects of intelligence gathering in Iraq & Afghanistan under the previous Administration. What could Piper know or have that these people would go to such lengths to get hold of?

The narrative moves from Sharon’s first person account to the third person viewpoints of Hy, Adah, Craig & the rest of the team. I could barely read quickly enough to keep up with the pace of the narrative. I read it in two sittings, like I do all Marcia Muller’s books. The tension is unbearable. Marcia Muller keeps the suspense of the investigation at a high level while also revealing more of the characters' private lives. I think that’s important in a series. Sharon & Hy’s marriage is under strain from the repercussions of her condition & her refusal to accept help. She values her independence & is frightened to think she may never get back to her old self. She’s constantly pushing at her limits, resenting the things she can no longer do. She has to work out how to repair her relationship with Hy & get her old life back – or how to cope if she can’t. That's just as interesting to a long-time fan like me as the investigation. Coming Back is the 27th book in the series. I can’t wait to read no 28.

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