Muller, Marcia 1944–
Muller, Marcia 1944–
PERSONAL: Born September 28, 1944, in Detroit, MI; daughter of Henry J. (a marketing executive) and Kathryn (Minke) Muller; married Frederick T. Gilson, Jr. (in sales), August 12, 1967 (divorced, 1981); married Bill Pronzini (a novelist), 1992. Education: University of Michigan, B.A. (English), 1966, M.A. (journalism), 1971.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Molly Friedrich, Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency Inc., 708 3rd Ave., 23rd Fl., New York, NY 10017-4103.
CAREER: Sunset magazine, Menlo Park, CA, merchandising supervisor, 1967–69; University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, Ann Arbor, field interviewer in San Francisco Bay area, 1971–73; freelance writer and novelist, 1973–; Invisible Ink, San Francisco, partner (with Julie Smith), 1979–83.
AWARDS, HONORS: American Mystery Award, 1989, for The Shape of Dread; Private Eye Writers of America Shamus award, 1991; Private Eye Writers of America Life Achievement award, 1993; Anthony Boucher awards, 1994, for Wolf in the Shadows, and 1996, for The McCone Files; Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement in Suspense Award, 1999; Spur Award nomination, Western Writers of America, for short story "Time of the Wolves"; Grand Master Award, Mystery Writers of America, 2005.
CRIME NOVELS; "SHARON MCCONE" SERIES
Edwin of the Iron Shoes, McKay (New York, NY), 1977.
Ask the Cards a Question, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1982.
The Cheshire Cat's Eye, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1983.
Games to Keep the Dark Away, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1984.
Leave a Message for Willie, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1984.
(With husband, Bill Pronzini) Double, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1984.
There's Nothing to Be Afraid Of, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1985.
Eye of the Storm, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1988.
The Shape of Dread, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1989.
There's Something in a Sunday, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Trophies and Dead Things, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1990.
Where Echoes Live, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1991.
Pennies on a Dead Woman's Eyes, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Wolf in the Shadows, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1993.
Till the Butchers Cut Him Down, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1994.
A Wild and Lonely Place, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1995.
The McCone Files: The Complete Sharon McCone Stories, Crippen & Landru (Norfolk, VA), 1995.
The Broken Promise Land, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Both Ends of the Night, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1997.
While Other People Sleep, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1998.
(With Bill Pronzini) Duo (stories), Five Star (Unity, ME), 1998.
A Walk through the Fire, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Listen to the Silence, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2000.
McCone and Friends (stories), Crippen & Landau (Norfolk, VA), 2000.
Season of Sharing: A Sharon McCone and "Nameless Detective" Story, Crippen & Landru (Norfolk, VA), 2001.
Dead Midnight, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2002.
The Dangerous Hour, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Vanishing Point, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2006.
CRIME NOVELS; "ELENA OLIVEREZ" SERIES
The Tree of Death, Walker & Company (New York, NY), 1983.
The Legend of the Slain Soldiers, Walker & Company (New York, NY), 1985.
(With Bill Pronzini) Beyond the Grave, Walker & Company (New York, NY), 1986.
CRIME NOVELS; "JOANNA STARK" SERIES
The Cavalier in White, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1986.
There Hangs the Knife, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1988.
Dark Star, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1989.
"SOLEDAD COUNTY" SERIES
Point Deception, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Cyanide Wells, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Cape Perdido, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 2005.
OTHER CRIME NOVELS
(With Bill Pronzini) The Lighthouse: A Novel of Terror, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1987.
ANTHOLOGIES; EDITOR WITH BILL PRONZINI
The Web She Weaves: An Anthology of Mystery and Suspense Stories by Women, Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
Child's Play: An Anthology of Mystery and Suspense Stories, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1984.
Witches' Brew: Horror and Supernatural Stories by Women, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1984.
Chapter and Hearse: Suspense Stories about the World of Books, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985.
Dark Lessons: Crime and Detection on Campus, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1985.
Kill or Cure: Suspense Stories about the World of Medicine, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1985.
She Won the West: An Anthology of Western and Frontier Stories by Women, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985.
The Wickedest Show on Earth: A Carnival of Circus Suspense, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1985.
The Deadly Arts: A Collection of Artful Suspense, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1985.
1,001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1986.
(Also with Martin H. Greenberg) Lady on the Case, Bonanza (New York, NY), 1988.
Detective Duos, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1997.
CRIME SHORT STORIES
Deceptions, Mystery Scene Press, 1991.
The Wall (novella; originally published in Criminal Intent I), Dark Harvest, 1993.
(Author of preface) Hard-Boiled Dames: A Brass-Knuckled Anthology of the Toughest Women from the Classic Pulps, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1986.
Time of the Wolves: Western Stories (includes short story "Time of the Wolves"), Five Star (Waterville, ME), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: Novelist Marcia Muller has been instrumental in creating an audience for private eye fiction that features a female protagonist. "When Marcia Muller introduced Sharon McCone in 1977 [in Edwin of the Iron Shoes], the author created the first contemporary female hard-boiled private investigator to feature in a series of American crime fiction novels," wrote Adrian Muller in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers. Sharon McCone, Muller 's favorite heroine, is an ace San Francisco legal investigator who differs from some of her more hardboiled counterparts in that she is more apt to use her wits than her gun. The author once explained that in creating McCone, her aim was "to use the classical puzzle form of the mystery to introduce a contemporary female sleuth, a figure with surprisingly few counterparts in the world of detective fiction." Not only did Muller achieve this personal goal, she also helped pave the way for other women writers who were using female sleuths in their work. Few authors have had more success in the genre than Muller herself, however—McCone has been featured in more than twenty novels, as well as two collections of short stories.
Muller began writing fiction at the age of twelve, but her career as a successful author emerged slowly. In a Booklist interview, she recalled: "I took a creative writing course in college, and the instructor told me I would never be a writer because I had nothing to say." Taking the advice to heart, she earned an advanced degree in journalism. Only after moving to San Francisco—and discovering the novels of fellow University of Michigan graduate Ross Macdonald—did she determine to give fiction writing another try. Even after she created Sharon McCone, she still faced some obstacles. "Following Edwin of the Iron Shoes, publishers felt that female protagonists held little appeal for readers of crime fiction," Adrien Muller noted, "and it wasn't until 1982 that McCone reappeared in Ask the Cards a Question." In a Booklist review, Connie Fletcher stated that Ask the Cards a Question is a "perfectly plotted follow-up to Muller's first novel." Publishers Weekly critic Barbara A. Bannon also praised the book, commenting that "fans … won't be disappointed with this." The "Sharon McCone" series—and Muller's career—were finally launched, and soon McCone had a growing fan base of both male and female readers.
McCone's one-time small investigation operation has grown over the course of more than twenty novels. In titles such as Listen to the Silence, she learns she has much to discover about her own past, while in Dead Midnight, McCone has to learn to let the past go as she grieves over her brother's suicide. The former book showed "good pacing as Sharon's past is slowly revealed," according to Barbara Perkins in School Library Journal. Katherine Fitch, reviewing the book for the same journal, noted that beyond Muller's usual adult audience, "Teens will be fascinated by Sharon's search for her roots." In Dead Midnight McCone struggles to deal with her brother's death while investigating another young man's suspicious suicide.
"Subplots and Sharon's introspection add a counterbalance of maturity, intelligence, and emotion to the well-plotted story," wrote Michelle Foyt of the novel in Library Journal, while a Publishers Weekly critic called Dead Midnight "Muller's best yet." Dead Midnight marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of McCone's first published investigation, and Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Book Review commented, "this San Francisco private detective has never stopped growing." Christine W. Randall, writing for Charleston, South Carolina's Post and Courier, noted that Muller "has managed to keep her heroine fresh and entertaining in the more than twenty novels since" McCone's first appearance.
McCone's growth as a character has been reflected by the growth of her agency as well. The Dangerous Hour deals with a threat to McCone Investigations at a time when the agency's future looks golden. When one of McCone's operatives is accused of credit-card theft, McCone delves into the case, and finds out that someone may be out to shut her down by framing her employees. The book is marked by "smooth prose, a diverting plot, and diverse characters," according to Library Journal reviewer Rex E. Klett. As a Publishers Weekly contributor wrote, "Muller has a knack for painting a full picture of McCone's life without getting too cutesy," while Judith Evans, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, commented that the novel contains a "fast-moving story, its well-developed characters, and a plot that veers from the expected."
Muller has been praised for both the realistic depiction of her heroine and for giving readers vivid descriptions of the series' Bay area locales. "San Francisco is a place that lends itself to description," Muller mused in an interview with Time Warner Bookmark Online. "It's the city of many small enclaves; each with distinctive flavor. When I write about it, the city becomes a secondary character in the novel." Fletcher noted the presence of "San Francisco atmosphere, fast action, and Muller's usual witty dialogue," in her Booklist review of Leave a Message for Willie, the fifth "Sharon McCone" mystery. In a review of There's Something in a Sunday for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Charles Champlin maintained that, "as before, Muller's strength is in her characters—McCone is likable and believable—and her ability to convey places and atmospheres." In a review of The Dangerous Hour, the twenty-third book in the series, Stephanie Zvirin of Booklist noted that Muller provides "a solid slice of a San Francisco community and a protagonist with character."
Adrian Muller commented in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers. that it is "the supporting characters that make these novels stand out from many other crime fiction series. Not only do many of the secondary characters continue to reappear, so do many of the minor characters; newly introduced or hovering in the background, they occasionally play larger parts in the books. Once established they rarely disappear without a given reason. The effect is that each new McCone novel is like coming back to a cast of well-loved characters…. Throughout the novels McCone's character is constantly evolving, both personally and professionally."
Muller's other female detectives are Elena Oliverez and Joanna Stark. Oliverez is an Hispanic curator in an American-Mexican arts museum. She has been featured in three of Muller's novels, beginning with The Tree of Death, in which Elena must prove that she had nothing to do with the murder of her boss. The novel is "a tale with an appealing and unusual setting, some well drawn characters and a heroine one wouldn't mind meeting again," according to Bannon's Publishers Weekly review.
Muller has edited many short-story anthologies with her husband, writer Bill Pronzini, including The Web She Weaves: An Anthology of Mystery and Suspense Stories by Women and Kill or Cure: Suspense Stories about the World of Medicine. In Publishers Weekly, Bannon critiqued The Web She Weaves as an "eminently entertaining and worthwhile collection." "Pronzini and Muller have unearthed some genuine gems," Margaret Cannon wrote of Kill or Cure for the Toronto Globe and Mail. "There are no turkeys in the collection."
Muller has also collaborated with Pronzini to produce a number of novels. Theirs is a very productive partnership, as both also critique each others' independent novels before the works are mailed to the publisher. Their collaborative novel, The Lighthouse: A Novel of Terror, a tale of yuppies and murder in a small town on the Oregon coast, "combines both authors' strengths … and avoids their weaknesses" in a setting that is "excellent," according to Cannon in her Toronto Globe and Mail review. Adrian Muller suggested that Double, another Muller-Pronzini collaboration, is "noteworthy for the fact that the point of view alternates from chapter to chapter between Muller's Sharon McCone and Pronzini's series character, the 'Nameless' detective."
It was Pronzini's success writing a stand-alone novel that encouraged Muller to try writing crime novels outside of her series fiction. "My husband had experimented with the so-called stand-alone novel, and it gave him a tremendous amount of freedom," Muller told an interviewer for Publishers Weekly. However, leaving McCone mader her nervous. In a column for the New York Times, Muller wrote, "I had misgivings. Could I convincingly write such characters? They were so unlike McCone and her associates, so unlike me. And it had been such a long time since I'd lived within the mind and soul of anyone other than her." Despite these hesitations, Muller forged ahead, creating the fictional Soledad County in her first stand-alone novel, Point Deception. Deputy Sheriff Rhoda Swift sees a woman pulled over on the side of a coastal road in fictional Soledad County, California. Unable to stop and help, Swift is filled with guilt when the woman is later discovered to have been murdered. With the aid of New York writer Guy Newberry, Swift takes on the case, connecting the woman's murder with several past murders. "Muller is in peak condition with this story," wrote Booklist contributor Barbara Bibel. Ruth H. Miller, writing for Library Journal, commented on the three narrators used in the book—Swift, Newberry, and the murder victim, noting that "Muller moves smoothly from the voice of the murdered woman to Rhoda and Guy." According to a Publishers Weekly contributor, "You can taste the fog and smell the seaweed along [the] Highway in … Muller's Soledad County." Comparing Rhoda Swift to Sharon McCone, Muller told the interviewer at Publishers Weekly, "I think that Rhoda is more vulnerable certainly than Sharon McCone. While she's very professional, she's basically a wounded person." Writing for the Cleveland, Ohio Plain Dealer, Les Roberts considered Point Deception "a shining example of why Muller is one of the most highly respected writers in her field."
Cyanide Wells, another stand-alone mystery, also features the Soledad County setting. This time, Matt Lindstrom, who is suspected to have killed his wife, Gwen, discovers that she was never actually murdered. He travels from his home in British Columbia to the town of Cyanide Wells, California, to try to make sense of her disappearance, only to find out that she has now disappeared again. Matt finds himself teamed up with Carly McGuire, a newspaper publisher and Gwen's partner, with whom she had a child, to track down both Gwen and Gwen and Carly's daughter. What Matt and Carly discover leads them to understand just how deep Gwen's deceptions have been.
"The relationship between these two prickly characters … is the most intriguing aspect" of the novel, wrote GraceAnne A. DeCandido in her review for Booklist. Calling the book a "brisk, tidy number," a Kirkus Reviews felt that Cyanide Wells features "Muller's best plotting in years." According to Plain Dealer contributor Les Roberts, "Muller has for twenty-five years been one of the world's premier mystery writers," and Cyanide Wells "illustrated why." Muller's third stand-alone novel set in Soledad County features a conflict between big business and environmentalists; when two environmentalists disappear, four members of the Cape Perdido community band together to solve the mystery. According to Stephanie Zvirin in Booklist, Muller's "carefully measured plot revelations … prove more than enough to keep both longtime fans and newcomers spellbound."
Along with her stand-alone crime novels, Muller has also written a collection of Western stories titled Time of the Wolves. The titular short story was nominated for a Spur Award by the Western Writers of America. "As with any of my departures from the McCone series, I wanted to experiment with something new and stretch my abilities as a writer," Muller explained to an interviewer for Bookreporter.com. A Publishers Weekly critic commended the collection, noting that Muller's fans will "enjoy this example of Muller's versatility." McCone makes an appearance in two of the short stories in the collection, and some of the stories are collaborations between Muller and Pronzini.
Muller explained in an essay for the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers: "In my detective fiction I am attempting to explore various problems of contemporary American society through the eyes of women who become involved in situations which compel them to seek the solutions to various crimes. In the cases of amateur detectives Elena Oliverez and Joanna Stark, these circumstances are more or less thrust upon them, and the women have a strong personal stake in seeing the perpetrators of the crimes brought to justice. Private investigator Sharon McCone's involvement is professional, but more often than not she becomes deeply involved with her clients and/or crimes' victims…. While not a superwoman, when forced to confront extraordinary situations, she reaches beyond her normal capabilities and grows and changes accordingly."
In a Booklist interview, Muller admitted that Sharon McCone was at first "an alter ego: taller, thinner, braver, etc. But over the years, we've become a whole lot alike. We share the same political views, the same outlook on the world, the same outlook on people…. I think that I am trying to work something out through her." In another interview for Time Warner Bookmark Online, the writer admitted: "My greatest fear is that Sharon McCone will show up on my doorstep with her .357 [magnum] and get even for all the dreadful experiences I've put her through!"
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Marcia Muller contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
One of a fiction writer's obligations to his or her readers is to create a scene that they can enter, visualize, and to some degree become part of. I'll attempt to do that for you now, as a way of beginning to explain who I am and how I came to have a career as a crime writer.
Imagine a small, cluttered office in the English department at the University of Michigan. The building is institutional, fifties style; the furnishings are metal, Spartan. A thin, nervous nineteen-year-old English major perches on the edge of a chair, across the desk from a big, bearded visiting professor of creative writing, the author of two published literary novels, who looks somewhat depressed by her presence.
The young woman clears her throat and finally speaks. "Why did you give me only a C in the class? Does it mean you don't think I have what it takes to be a writer?"
Now the professor looks weary. He picks up a sheaf of manuscript pages, scans them, and drops them on the desk. "In my opinion, you will never be a writer," he tells her. "You have nothing to say."
As the woman leaves the building, literary aspirations dashed to pieces, she thinks that the gray skies over Ann Arbor, Michigan, have never looked gloomier.
Yes, that young woman was me. And some forty years later I sit here at my computer, living testimony that one shouldn't always pay attention to the opinions of a supposed expert.
Contrary to what the professor said, I'd always believed I had a great deal to say and the ability to learn how to say it. As a child I wrote pamphlet-size stories about my cocker spaniel, one per season: "Bally Hoo in the Spring," "Bally Hoo in the Summer," "Bally Hoo in the Fall," "Bally Hoo in the Winter." Granted, the titles could have used some work, but they did say something about the animal and my childhood fantasies.
Next I wrote a pamphlet explaining why I felt compelled to chronicle the dog's adventures, and at age twelve, in a long summer's effort, I typed and illustrated a 144-page saga, "The Dogs of Willowhill," about said cocker spaniel and her friends who were, in reality, my stuffed animals. I was revising it to turn it into a mystery story about the time I discovered I was more interested in boys than in the printed word.
My parents—Henry J. Muller, an oil company executive, and Kathryn S. Muller, a homemaker—were amused by, and tolerant of, my fledgling literary endeavors. (Much more amused and tolerant than they were of my interest in boys.) In fact, my father was a great storyteller—although upon adult reflection, I realize that his stories bore a suspicious resemblance to the cartoons I liked to watch—and he always kept us amused. Both of my parents prized education, and thus the house in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, where my two sisters, my brother, and I grew up was full of books. Our library contained a set of the classics, hundreds of volumes of contemporary novels, plays, and poetry, as well as a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Children's books—both new and passed down from my three older siblings—filled a huge cabinet in my bedroom. I read my way through such classics as The Wind in the Willows and The Wizard of Oz, as well as all the girls' mysteries.
My favorite of the latter was the "Judy Bolton" series by Margaret Sutton. Unlike the books in the "Nancy Drew" series, they were authored by a single person, rather than a syndicate, and were much more adult in content and style. Judy was in many ways the inspiration for my long-running series detective, Sharon McCone: independent, somewhat hotheaded, compassionate, and socially aware. In dipping into one of the Sutton books a few years ago, I noted that she even had, as McCone does, a boyfriend who flew an airplane. Judy not only detected, but grew and changed: she graduated from high school, began a career, got married, had a foster daughter. As a young girl who already idolized writers, I would have been thrilled to know that one day I would meet Margaret Sutton, and that she would request a signed copy of Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977), my first novel. What better validation for a new writer than to have a childhood hero read her fledgling effort?
My reading tastes were about to expand, though: when I was around thirteen my mother presented me with a copy of Gone with the Wind and told me I was ready for adult fiction. From then on the library became my refuge from a somewhat lonely childhood.
I was the youngest child and a change-of-life baby, conceived on a frosty December night in 1943, and I often felt like an outsider within my own family. Everyone else had been born in New Jersey (except for my mother, who was born in Germany), and they had moved to Michigan only a year before my birth. By the time I started school, my oldest sister, Lois, had already graduated from high school; my brother, Henry, Jr. (to whom, when he was fourteen, my mother delegated the dubious pleasure of delivering me to kindergarten for my first day), left for college when I was in fourth grade. Even my sister Carol, seven years older, to whom I was closest, was married before I started high school. And when they were all present … well, it was like having two sets of parents and one young aunt. Two sets of parents and one young aunt who didn't hesitate to tell me what to do at every opportunity. Possibly this is why, to this day, I have a strong and sometimes unreasonable resistance to authority figures—a trait that I've passed along to many of my fictional characters.
It didn't help that I was shy and, because our home was located in an area populated by older families, unused to children of my own age. As the years passed and I became more socialized, I had a few close friends, but I was always more comfortable in my own company. Today I picture myself as that weird kid people always saw walking home from school alone, muttering to herself. Little did others know that I was actually talking to a large and colorful cast of imaginary playmates.
A lonely childhood is no fun, but it shapes a person so she is able to live inside her own head, creating worlds that have not existed and never will exist. It causes the imagination to twist and turn in ways that it would not, were her time spent in close companionship with others. And it teaches self-reliance. The imaginary playmates that peopled my mind were always strong, independent, and daring, and in them I see the roots of the characters I write about today. In my own loneliness, I see the roots of Sharon McCone, who also felt an outsider in her family.
It was, however, a long road from the creative writing professor's untidy office to the office where, now, those characters are brought to life.
My solution to the professor's judgment of my literary abilities was to study journalism. Even though I might not have anything to say fictionally, I reasoned, I could at least report on activities and activists in the real world. While taking as many undergraduate courses in journalism as my schedule would permit, I became a campus correspondent for Mademoiselle magazine, and in 1966 was one of twelve finalists in Vogue magazine's annual Prix de Paris writing contest. After receiving my highly useless B.A. in English literature, I entered the university's graduate journalism program.
During the course of my study, however, a disturbing tendency surfaced: I began to fictionalize my nonfiction pieces. Sometimes I'd be interviewing a subject and think, "Why am I asking questions of this boring person? I could make up so many more fascinating answers." This was not a tendency that endeared me to my professors or the editors for whom I attempted to freelance.
After my first year of graduate school, I gave up journalism, married a naval officer, Fred Gilson, whom I had dated as an undergraduate, and moved to California. The state immediately fascinated me: magnificent and varied topography; diversity of ethnic groups; rich history. I took a job in the merchandising department of Sunset magazine—"The Magazine of Western Living"—and became immersed in the culture of my new home. Two years later, my husband was deployed to the Philippines, and I accompanied him there and on a trip through Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Japan. In the Philippines we lived off-base in Cavite City, a navy town across the bay from Manila, and there and in the capital city I came into contact with members of a wealthy Chinese family to whom a friend had referred me; U.S. Embassy officials; art dealers; the ordinary shopkeepers and citizens of the navy town; a madam who ran a "resort" with an uncommonly good restaurant, who used to send me food during my husband's frequent sojourns in Vietnam. More eye-opening sights for a still-naive young woman from the American Midwest. More inspiration for the books and stories I didn't yet know I would write.
By the time my husband was discharged from the navy and we returned to Ann Arbor—he to study toward an M.B.A. and I to finish my M.A. in journalism—the marriage was crumbling. We'd married, as did so many couples in those days, because it seemed time to do so, but for us it proved to be the wrong time. After receiving my M.A. in 1971, I moved alone to San Francisco, where I supported myself on my small savings and my earnings as a temporary office worker. Since most of the temp jobs required a certain mastery of the typewriter that I didn't possess, these earnings were not large, and I found myself with a great deal of free time on my hands. To fill it, I turned to my old love—reading. And, more specifically, to reading the crime novel.
When I first came back to San Francisco, a friend had loaned me a Ross Macdonald novel, The Far Side of the Dollar, to take with me on a long bus ride. Macdonald's vivid depictions of the California scene and his complex plot structures fascinated me. I read all of his books I could find, and was soon making weekly trips to the library to raid the mystery section for books by other authors. Voraciously, I read everything—American, British, foreign translations; cozies, hardboiled, suspense, police procedurals; good, bad, and indifferent. But the one type I kept coming back to was the American private-eye novel. There was something about these independent heroes working the mean streets to right wrongs that appealed to my sense of adventure and justice. The streets around my Mission district apartment certainly were mean, and I was very wary on them, not being a particularly brave person. But perhaps I could create an alter ego who would walk them unafraid….
Private detective Sharon McCone, now in her twenty-eighth year of sleuthing, was about to be born.
It was, however, a birth not without difficulties. In early 1972, I reconciled with my husband, and a year later we moved to the distant East Bay suburb of Walnut Creek, where we bought a house that was to be under constant construction and remodeling for four years. Money was short, and once again I took on temporary office jobs that later would provide characters and background for my fiction. Construction companies, plumbing suppliers, freight forwarding agents, engineers, small business consultants—all would play a part in McCone's and other series characters' future cases. I had begun a manuscript for what I thought would be the first Sharon McCone novel while living in San Francisco. Now, far from my friends and the pleasant distractions of the city, I began to flesh out the character and her surroundings.
Sharon McCone: Sharon, for my college roommate; McCone, for John McCone, former head of the CIA. (An in joke that was not caught until years later when Mr. McCone's niece read one of the books and contacted me; I was relieved to learn that her uncle was amused.)
Sharon's surroundings: poverty law firm All Souls Legal Cooperative, a name that more or less popped into my mind after I met members of a Los Angeles group, the Bar Sinisters, at a University of California conference for women in the legal profession. True to form, I was at the conference to do research for a freelance article, but ended up with fictional fodder instead.
My first effort at a novel, The Ph. Parameter, was dreadful, centering around right-wing conspiracies and improbable situations that triggered phobias, and set mainly in Los Angeles, about which I knew very little. The manuscript was deemed unsalable by every agent and unpublishable by every editor who bothered to read it, and I have to admit they were right. A few years ago, in preparation for writing framing stories for a collection of Sharon McCone short stories—one about her first, unsolved case for the law co-op, the other about the solution to that case that she arrives at on the day the co-op is dissolved—I was forced to reread the opening chapter of Ph. It was a humbling experience, except for one fact: Sharon McCone's narrative voice is true, even in that embryonic effort. The novel will never see publication, however; it resides in a box that is swathed in duct tape, with a note attached saying "To be burned in the event of my death."
Fortunately, when the negative comments on Ph. started pouring in, I'd already begun my second manuscript. And I'd also learned of a workshop in mystery writing that was being conducted by the University of California Extension in Berkeley.
Jean Backus, the workshop leader, was a wonderful teacher. Although she had published only four books—three spy novels as David Montross and a romance under her own name—and a handful of short stories, she had the gift of being able to look at a manuscript, analyze its flaws, and recommend ways to correct them. In fact, a firm rule of the workshop was that one wasn't allowed to make a criticism without backing it up with a concrete, positive suggestion. The workshop hadn't attracted enough of a signup to make it profitable for UC, so a small group of us met at Jean's house in the Berkeley hills. It was there that my first published novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, was conceived.
Jean began by giving us an assignment: write a biography of your main character. In the course of doing so, I committed to paper details about Sharon McCone that had been only hazy notions before. Sharon's family is loosely based on the family of a friend, and their stories became her stories; similarly, many of my family stories and those of other friends made their way into the McCone family history. Sharon attended UC Berkeley because it was the West Coast campus most nearly like the University of Michigan; we shared common experiences during our college years. The Mission district apartment where she lived bore a suspicious resemblance to the one in which I had devoured so many mysteries. All Souls Legal Cooperative occupied the big, brown Victorian in the Bernal Heights district that in reality was occupied by a college classmate and her husband.
Out of the simple facts of the biography came more intimate details: Sharon had often felt an outsider in her own family; she was something of a loner, craving her personal space, but needing others as well; she had bad luck with men. She also had qualities that I wished I possessed, the most important of which were courage and independence.
I'm often asked why I chose to give Sharon an Indian background (she is originally described as being one-eighth Shoshone, a throwback to her great-grandmother). In the beginning this was a descriptive device. Because the McCone novels are written in the first person, I needed to find a way to make the readers aware of what she looked like without using the hackneyed device of having her look in a mirror and describe herself. Everyone has some conception of how Native Americans look (although, as I've found out, it's usually at one extreme or the other, from Cher to the squaws in old western movies). Later, Sharon's Indian background would play a more crucial role in the series, but that's getting way ahead of Jean Backus's writers workshop.
The second assignment Jean gave us was more specific: develop the plot for a short story based on a painting on her living room wall. I looked at it and thought, "Cheap souvenir from Florence." (Later I found out it was a Russian icon of some value.) With the cheap Florentine painting firmly in mind, I sat down and in the course of a week plotted not a short story, but a novel.
The plot I had devised was loosely based upon an enclave of antique shops in San Francisco and the murder victim was one of their owners. (The woman later displayed the book prominently in her shop window, advertising her status as having been fictionally done in.) Unfortunately, the story was also quite skimpy, and as the writing progressed I was forced to improvise, adding characters, scenes, and plot twists, and constantly revising—a free-form method that I use to this day. When I finally presented the draft to Jean Backus, she returned it with twelve handwritten pages of criticism: unbelievable ending; faulty pacing; words repeated ad nauseum. Humbled, I began to rewrite, consulting frequently with Jean. One of our favorite shared stories came out of that period.
I was at the point of revising the ending, and had discussed several alternatives with Jean, none of which was totally satisfying, when a load of dirt for a raised-bed vegetable garden was delivered to my home. I decided to take a break and was shoveling the dirt into the bed when the proper ending to my story occurred to me. I rushed into the house, called Jean, and forever after she delighted in telling people what I had been doing when I had my brainstorm. Unfortunately, like me, Jean possessed the urge to make a story more interesting, and she referred to my outdoor activity as "shoveling shit."
While I was attending the workshop, I'd finished a second manuscript, Ask the Cards a Question (1982), and as I wrote Edwin, I began to send it out. I had heard that an editor at David McKay Company, Michele Slung, was actively seeking mystery novels. I knew of Michele, from an anthology of short stories featuring women sleuths she had edited, and, from the books she'd suggested in her bibliography, I felt my writing might interest her. So the second manuscript went off to her and was promptly returned with an encouraging note saying that while the plot wasn't strong enough, she liked the McCone character and would be interested in seeing something else featuring her. I was nearly finished with the final draft of Edwin, and I wrote back the same day, saying, "I just happen to have …" Several months later the manuscript became one of that rare breed, accepted for publication by the first editor who saw it.
Every writer remembers the circumstances of a first sale—where they were, what they were doing when the call came—and I'm no exception, particularly because the circumstances leading up to it had been peculiar and stressful. Michele Slung had written in August to say she wanted to buy the book, but was going on a three-week trip to Europe and would have to finalize things when she returned. Three weeks stretched out to five, six, seven; the agent she had recommended to me to hated the character and returned my manuscript. I didn't know what to do: Query, and maybe kill the sale? Remain silent, and maybe be forgotten? Finally I sent off a brief letter.
Two days later I was paying bills after collecting my meager earnings from a temp job when the phone rang. Michele, calling from New York. She was going to buy the book. That was it—a brief phone call, and my life changed forever.
I celebrated by attending a writers group meeting that I had scheduled (Jean Backus was no longer interested in giving workshops, so several of us had begun holding meetings at each other's homes). Because I had called first to explain why I would be late, the others had time to prepare, and when I walked in I found them all on the floor, bowing as one would to Mecca.
Many people have asked me why I chose to write crime novels rather than mainstream fiction. There's the obvious answer, one I've given many times and heard other mystery novelists assert: The detective story imposes order upon a chaotic world. Terrible things may happen, people may die, but in the end there is an explanation as to why these events occurred and justice is meted out. Unlike in real life, both the reader and the writer are presented with answers and closure.
But for me there's a more personal reason for writing the crime novel, one that, strangely enough, I'd never articulated until the mid-1990s, when I heard myself telling it to a radio talk-show host.
I became a mystery writer because it was a way to exorcize old demons. During my childhood and young adulthood I experienced a series of troubling events: my dentist shot and killed his wife and child; a favorite high school teacher (and mother of a friend) was brutally murdered by her husband; a friend's father was killed when the airliner on which he was flying was exploded in midair by a bomb; a college friend who lived in the next dorm room committed suicide; a college acquaintance was murdered—a killing that has never been solved. I naturally gravitated to crime writing as a way of making sense of these seemingly random events.
The path a professional fiction writer follows is more often than not a rocky one, full of pitfalls. During the four years following Edwin's publication, I revised Ask the Cards a Question and wrote two other novels featuring Sharon McCone, as well as two collaborative mysteries with my friend Susan Dunlap, who had been in the workshop with me and who would go on to have a successful career as a mystery writer herself. Neither of those two sold. Years later Sue's and my joint efforts were cannibalized by both of us: we divided up the characters and used them in our own work. A phone call would come from Sue: "Have you used Sylvia Bluefoot yet?" Me: "No." Sue: "Well, then she's mine." Me: "Okay, I'll take E.J. I've got just the place for him."
But that was much later, and the years between 1977 and 1981 were gloomy ones. I moved from a good agent to a bad one, began different sorts of novels and abandoned them. Tried short stories that were met with rejection. The only positive move was back to San Francisco in 1977; living in the city inspired and energized me. I also got to know two other budding mystery writers with a need for support of their writing habits: Julie Smith and Margaret Lucke.
Together the three of us formed Invisible Ink, an "editorial services" firm, which by loose definition meant that we would do anything with the printed word that someone was willing to pay us for—editing, ghostwriting, whatever. Assignments came in through whatever contacts we had, and it soon became apparent that Margaret Lucke got the normal, corporate jobs; Julie Smith got the classy, interesting jobs; and I got the weird ones: the grandmother who was writing up her sexual odyssey through Europe for her grandchildren; the black man who was penning a long treatise on why he preferred white women; the airline pilot who could make even his perilous past in the Middle East sound boring, and who would call from Madrid or Paris to ask me to go over to his apartment and water his plants. Why, I wondered repeatedly, did I attract such people?
Yes, those were gloomy years personally as well as professionally. Once again my marriage was crumbling, as we embarked on yet another mammoth home remodeling project. Something, I knew, had to change.
Enter Bill Pronzini.
At that time, Bill was regional vice president of the northern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and responsible for chairing their monthly meetings. I had refused to attend these meetings until after my first novel was scheduled to be published, because I was in awe of "real writers" and afraid of not fitting in. My first encounter with Bill was not promising: he introduced me to the assembled group as the author of Edgar of the Iron Shoes—a slip that made some people laugh and others mutter, "Well, she must think highly of her work, naming the book after the Edgar award!" Bill, who gave generously of his time to aspiring writers—as others had done for him—made up for the slip in 1981, however, when he offered to read my unpublished manuscripts. During a subsequent trip to New York City for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Week, he introduced me to his then-editor at St. Martin's Press, Thomas Dunne. And a few months later, at the same time that my marriage finally ended, Tom bought Ask the Cards a Question.
Two things are notable about that visit to New York: first, despite four years of resistance to meeting face-to-face with editors, I had sold my novel within two months of meeting Tom Dunne. And second, another editor Bill had introduced me to was Sara Ann Freed, who would eventually become my editor and friend for twenty-one years.
Ask the Cards a Question had roughly the same plot structure as Edwin, as did my third book, 1983's The Cheshire Cat's Eye—not a great title, but neither I nor anyone at St. Martin's could come up with a viable alternative. The formula went this way: someone is killed; Sharon is on the case; someone else is killed by the same villain; Sharon tracks him down and solves the case. In my anxiety over plotting I had abandoned my free-form style and devised elaborate charts, showing where each character was at every time, in the hope of preventing such glitches as the murderer talking to McCone while he was supposed to be doing someone in. When it came time to start my fourth McCone, Games to Keep the Dark Away, Bill suggested I might want to try another plot structure and explained a few alternatives. I plunged into the book without deciding which one I would use, allowing the characters to simply take over as I had with Edwin. And the plot charts went into the trash basket.
St. Martin's Press operated on volume publishing principles with mysteries: they didn't pay much or print very many copies, but with those copies going mainly to libraries, they made money on every title. It was not such a happy situation for authors, however, and it soon became apparent that I needed an additional source of income. Invisible Ink wasn't getting many jobs in those days, so I began thinking about trying other forms of fiction.
Why not write romances? my new agent—an associate of Bill's agent at Curtis Brown Ltd.—suggested. God knows I tried. Proposals flew out of my typewriter, all conforming to the tip sheets the romance lines passed out to prospective authors. Proposals flew out of the editors' offices and back into my mailbox; the concepts and characters weren't believable, they claimed. I agreed. My heart wasn't in it, and to be convincing to the reader the author has to believe in the work. Short stories weren't a viable option either. Although Bill had bought the first McCone short, "Merrill-Go-Round," for an anthology he was editing, and encouraged me to write my first western story, "Sweet Cactus Wine," for another, the proceeds from such projects wouldn't keep my cats in food.
Finally I decided to try a second mystery series. On a trip to New York, I ran the idea by Sara Ann Freed, who at the time was an editor at Walker & Company. Sara Ann had taken the trouble to look up and read Edwin after we met the year before, and had rejected The Cheshire Cat's Eye (which I had been sending out simultaneously with Ask the Cards a Question) with positive comment. The series I first proposed to her was to be based in the art world and feature a sleuth, Joanna Stark, who was a partner in a security firm that dealt exclusively with galleries and museums. As we talked, however, I could see Sara Ann's eyes glazing over, so I quickly switched to a subject that had come up in conversation with a friend who was a fundraiser for a Mexican museum in San Francisco.
How about a series with a Latina sleuth? I asked. Sara Ann perked up some. A woman who was a curator with a Mexican museum whose boss is killed, I added. A murder that any number of people had cause to commit? Where would the series be set? Sara Ann asked. Not San Francisco. I already had a series set there. Well, how about Santa Barbara? I asked. I liked the town, had visited there a number of times, and had a friend there who would assist in the research. As it turned out, it was one of Sara Ann's favorite California cities. The deal for the Elena Oliverez series was finalized a week later.
There were only three Oliverez novels—The Tree of Death (1983), The Legend of the Slain Soldiers (1985), and Beyond the Grave (1986), the last which was coauthored with Bill. I never really connected with the protagonist the way I did with Sharon McCone. The problem wasn't her ethnic background; I had a fairly good sense of the Hispanic community from a former job with a Small Business Administration contractor, a basic grasp of the language, and besides, Elena Oliverez was a second-generation American. But she was also an amateur sleuth and I had to contrive ways for her to stumble onto crimes. Beyond the Grave (considered by many to be Bill's and my best collaboration), was a saga that spanned more than a hundred years and paired Elena with Bill's 1890s private detective, John Quincannon; it was also a departure from what I considered a so-so series, and the prospect of going back to routine amateur-sleuth novels made me decide to retire Elena.
Around the time I was writing the first Oliverez novel, Bill came up with an idea for an anthology that fit perfectly into the great upsurge in popularity of female mystery writers: classic stories all by women, past and present, titled The Web She Weaves (1983). He had edited a number of anthologies previously, and now I learned the process from him. The dozen anthologies we edited together were a wonderful way of getting old stories back into print and showcasing new writers, as well as a steady source of income.
Then there was the project we first called "a labor of love": 1,001 Midnights. It consisted of 1,001 short reviews of crime novels and short-story collections throughout the history of the genre, some written by us and others that we commissioned. The title 1,001 Nightmares would have been more suitable; the project and some of the reviewers quickly became unmanageable, and the publisher, Arbor House, became uncooperative and disinterested. By the time the manuscript was finally delivered in 1985, we needed a long rest.
When I look back on the years between 1983 and 1986, I see a blur of manuscripts being typed, seemingly by someone else's hands; manuscripts going off in the mail; copyedited manuscripts and page proofs returning; finished books arriving. The sheer volume of the work should have been overwhelming, but I was energized, in love with being a writer, honing my skills and learning the business of publishing. And when Bill and I began collaborating, those new skills were put to the test.
Our first joint work was a short story, "Cave of Ice," which was published in Boys' Life magazine in 1986.
It was inspired by a vacation visit to an ice cave in southern Idaho, and we had to mesh styles, writing from the viewpoint of a teenaged boy. The experience, once I got over my tendency to write a teenager as if he were eight and not very bright, was a positive one. Next we talked to Tom Dunne about doing a collaborative "Nameless Detective" (who is the protagonist of Bill's mystery series) and Sharon McCone novel. The result was Double, which we wrote in alternating sections and published in 1984.
Double was written easily. Bill and I approach fiction the same way—as driven by character, rather than plot. And we were each working with a character whom we knew intimately and who got on well with the other's. An amusing sidelight: once the draft was done and we were taking a drive to the seashore to celebrate, it occurred to Bill that one of the three murders had absolutely no motivation or credible killer. Back to the drawing board. Write and learn.
What I learned in those busy years is that there are possibly four certainties about being a successful author, which I often pass on to aspiring writers, hoping it won't make them flee to some more stable profession. 1) It's a difficult business, and to succeed you need talent, drive, and luck. Probably the most important of these is luck. 2) If you're going to become a writer, you need to sit down and write every day, not just talk about it. If you write as little as only a single page a day, you'll have a draft of a novel inside of a year. 3) You should never be content with mimicking market trends. Don't study and imitate what's currently popular. Do your own, original work. 4) To stay in the game, you need to grow and change as a writer.
As it turned out, in 1986 luck played a great role in my ability to stay in the game. Bill and I had just moved from San Francisco to the country town of Sonoma, thinking a change of pace would recharge us. At first this didn't seem too likely. We were working on the final draft of our third book-length collaboration, a suspense novel called The Lighthouse (1987), and nothing was going the way we wanted it to. The plot wouldn't mesh, and our hero insisted on being a total jerk. Disagreements ensued amid the unpacked boxes in our cottage with the white picket fence (really, it had one!). I would look at the boxes and think, "Thank God we haven't opened them yet!" Eventually we forged agreements, our hero decided to be likeable, and the manuscript went off to St. Martin's.
Days later I received a call from Sara Ann Freed who had recently moved from Walker & Company to the Mysterious Press, asking me if I would bring the "McCone" series there.
The move to Mysterious Press energized me. It was a relatively new publishing house with a small list, and Sara Ann was an excellent editor. She said they wanted me to do the "McCone" books at greater length and in more depth than previously, and I was happy to oblige. It was agreed that I'd write one McCone per year and, since I had only two more "Joanna Stark" novels under contract to St. Martin's, I looked forward to the time when I'd have only one deadline a year.
The "Stark" books—the art security firm series that I'd originally described to Sara Ann and later sold to Tom Dunne—had evolved into a trilogy because of the personal story line that connected them. Joanna Stark was a woman with a dark past that had been revealed to me only as I wrote the first entry in the series, 1986's The Cavalier in White. It became more apparent as I began the second, There Hangs the Knife, that this story line would run throughout the books, and once it was resolved, the series would have to end. Stark was a darker and more complex character than either Elena Oliverez or Sharon McCone, but as I interspersed the writing of There Hangs the Knife and Dark Star with my first two "McCones" for Mysterious Press, a strange transference took place between Joanna and Sharon.
McCone developed a darker side; her personal demons, which she'd previously denied or held in check, emerged. Gradually I was beginning to dig deep beneath the surface of a character who at the beginning had been what one reviewer referred to as "something of a cheerleader." And what I found was a seriousness and complexity that had been there all along but never developed. In my 1989 novel The Shape of Dread, McCone's demons are unleashed full force, when she almost kills a man in cold blood. In Trophies and Dead Things she feels alienated not only from her family, but from her friends and associates, who have witnessed first hand the violent tendencies she struggles to keep under control.
McCone has always been my best friend, and a reflection of me, although no one would ever have referred to me as "something of a cheerleader." When we set out on our mutual journey we were both wide-eyed, in love with what we were doing. But as the years went on, we grew world-wise and cynical; while I possessed no violent tendencies of my own, I could very well imagine hers. Our careers seemed to parallel one another's, McCone responding to the tough realities she encountered as a private investigator, and me responding to the tough realities of the publishing industry. True, I have never stumbled across any dead bodies, but along the way I've seen plenty of carnage of a different sort.
Conglomerates and bottom-liners taking over independent houses. Authors' long-standing careers wrecked because sales weren't substantial enough to suit the cost accountants. Books no longer being referred to as books, but as "products" or "units." Editors summarily dismissed because the books they acquired weren't automatic best sellers. The emphasis on money, always on money. I myself felt safe at Mysterious Press because it was a small company—eventually an imprint of Warner Books, who had early on given them financial backing—and unusually loyal to its authors. But change was happening everywhere, and if bad things are visited upon your friends, they can someday visit you.
What do you do in such a situation? It's out of your control, so you write. And you acquire a new agent.
I've long felt that different agents are appropriate for different stages in a writer's career. The agent I worked with from 1982 to 1989 was good at negotiating standard contracts, but did little to improve my advances or persuade my publishers to actively promote my books. This was at the height of women writers' popularity—a time when books by and about contemporary women, and particularly the female private eye novel—were in great demand. I'd been watching my contemporaries' careers thrive, while mine was standing still. A friend, Marilyn Wallace, who had recently gone to the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency, recommended Molly Friedrich as the solution to my problems. But I balked at approaching Molly, who was known as an extremely high-powered agent.
In the summer of 1989, Bill and I were among the guests at a writers' conference at Dominican College in nearby San Rafael, California. Marilyn and Molly were there, too, and at the opening get-together, Marilyn introduced us, saying pointedly, "You two need to talk." The conversation took place the next day, the two of us sitting on a wooded hillside. Molly turned out to be a warm, lively woman, not the least bit intimidating, and sympathetic to my predicament (although she would later remark on my former "extremely passive" approach to my career), and she agreed to look at my two most recent books. Two weeks later I had a new agent who would actively work for my best interests—more proof that face-to-face meetings can change one's life.
Meanwhile, the editorial relationship with Sara Ann Freed was working out splendidly. She could put into words what I could not: the problems of a book, its strengths and weaknesses. We developed a method of working together that she called "reading each other's minds." When something in a manuscript didn't work for her, she'd point out what and why; almost immediately I'd come up with an alternative. It was much the way Bill and I looked at each other's work, which we exchanged and edited: make the author step back and take an objective look at something he or she may be too close to.
Sara Ann frequently commented that she didn't have to do as much to my manuscripts as to most authors' because they came in already edited. Bill and I have always exchanged work in progress when we feel we have pages that are ready to show and, while initially I hadn't felt experienced enough to criticize his work, he now relies on my input as much as I rely on his. When either of us is at an impasse—a plot or character problem, difficulty with the pacing—we run it by the other and invariably a solution occurs. Once, when I was finishing Wolf in the Shadows (1994) I came to him with two scenarios for the ending. He considered and said, "Neither's right. You know what's best and most logical, but you don't want to do it." Yes, I did, but I'd balked at it because it was more violent than my typical resolutions.
Until 1990, I hadn't received much promotional backing for my books. Prior to publication of Trophies and Dead Things, that changed. Mysterious brought me to Chicago for the American Library Association meeting and, at a dinner the night before my signing, I was introduced to Larry Kirshbaum, then CEO of Warner Books, the parent company that had recently purchased Mysterious Press. Again, it was one of those happy occasions where luck—or perhaps coincidence—played a huge role.
Larry had read the advance copy of Trophies, and told me he especially liked it because it looked back at the Vietnam War era. He added that he and a friend had once done a nonfiction collaborative account of the campus unrest, titled Is the Library Burning? I said, "Your friend must be Roger Rapaport." "How did you know?" Larry asked. "I went to college with him," I said. "We were in journalism classes together." "Well then," Larry said, "you also went to college with me."
Not only had Larry and I attended the same university, we'd graduated the same year and had lived only two blocks apart, although in a student population of some 40,000 our paths had never crossed. The connection was strong, however, and Larry became one of the staunchest supporters of my career.
When Trophies and Dead Things was published, a full page ad appeared in the New York Times. And then I found out about the other side of being an author: the book tour.
In the 1980s and 1990s book signings and tours were all the rage. I'd never been on one, but I'd done numerous signings and appearances at such events as Bouchercon, the annual world mystery convention. For Trophies, I embarked on a coast-to-coast tour, lugging too much baggage and spending too much down time in hotels and airports; having flights cancelled and escorts not show up; greeting small turnouts because booksellers had not troubled to publicize the event; talking to reporters who misquoted me and talk show hosts who hadn't read the book. But sales were improved, Mysterious told me.
As the craze for author appearances heated up, Bill and I were often asked to participate in events. A mystery weekend in Colorado sponsored by Rue Morgue Bookshop in Boulder, which involved a train ride from Denver to Glenwood Springs, produced memorable moments: one when an actor was "murdered" at the station upon arrival, and the train porter, who hadn't been alerted to what was going on, nearly had a heart attack; the other when I "unmasked" the villain as Bill. Over the years we traveled to England on the Queen Elizabeth II for a London Bouchercon, and to Caribbean ports on a mystery game cruise. After the Caribbean, we—no fans of cruises—decided we'd take our vacations on our own, even though we'd have to pay for them.
By 1991, the town of Sonoma had changed and become tourist-ridden, and Bill and I decided to look for a new home in a quieter location with more room to accommodate two offices and our growing collection of more than 20,000 books. The house we found was in Petaluma, forty miles north of San Francisco where, when it was a country town, Bill had grown up. He'd always subscribed to the theory that you can't go home again, at least not permanently; but the town had grown to a small city and become a lively mecca for artists and writers, and when he saw the big house for sale on a hillside backed up by open space, he quickly changed his mind. It was and is was perfect for two writers. The locations of Bill's office, on the ground floor, and my office, on the third floor at the opposite end of the house, preclude the interruptions ("How do you spell acquaintance?" "What's another word for indelible?") that we'd inflicted upon each other in our old Sonoma house, where our offices were right across the hall.
In the spring of 1992, we decided that it was time to make our commitment to each other permanent. We drove to Carson City, Nevada, and got married—a step that Sharon McCone would take with her longtime love, Hy Ripinsky, thirteen years later. Inspiration is everywhere, even in one's own nuptials.
There have been several redefining points in the "McCone" series. With The Shape of Dread, the books began taking on a darker tone. And in the 1991 novel Where Echoes Live McCone's personal life took a surprising turn. The mysterious Hy Ripinsky was not meant to be a long-running character; I intended him as a suspect who would later fade into the background and disappear. But as I was writing the scenes between him and McCone, I sensed a chemistry that needed to be explored. Ripinsky and McCone virtually insisted on becoming involved. One thing I've done from the very first is to allow my characters have their own way, and the result is almost always positive.
Wolf in the Shadows is one of the darker and more complex books in the series. Ripinsky vanishes and McCone must locate him while contending with assorted individuals from his unrevealed past, including one who wants to kill him. The ending is a particularly violent one for her; while she had killed in self-defense before, in Ask the Cards a Question, my description of the killing and its after effects on her was sketchy and somewhat amateurish. In Wolf, she faces her choice to take a man's life to save someone she loves straight out—and follows through with cool professionalism.
Wolf in the Shadows is the novel I was promoting when I went along on the Mysterious Mystery Tour. The brainchild of my new publicist at Mysterious, Susan Richman, that tour was something unheard of in the mystery world, but Susan is an energetic woman of vision who isn't the least bit afraid to try something new. On a chilly October morning in Omaha, Nebraska, a shivering group boarded a minibus to travel the Midwest: Susan and another publicist, Patricia Keim; Sara Ann Freed; authors K.K. Beck, James Crumley, Peter Lovesey, Jack O'Connell, Paco Ignacio Taibo III, and yours truly.
It might be said we were an ill assorted group. K.K. Beck wrote humorous amateur sleuth novels; James Crumley's books featured a hard-drinking, drug-using private eye; Peter Lovesey wrote in the classic British tradition; Jack O'Connell's novels depicted a hip, edgy world; and Paco Taibo chronicled the adventures of a Mexico City investigator. It may be that our differences were what made the tour so enjoyable; as we went by bus and plane from Omaha to Des Moines, Iowa, to Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and finally to Chicago, we found common ground and enjoyed each other's company. The bus tour has never been repeated; it couldn't be, Susan Richman claims, because how would we replicate such a group?
The year 1994 was a major one for me: Wolf in the Shadows was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for best novel and, while it didn't win, it was the recipient of the Anthony Boucher award for best novel at Bouchercon in Seattle, Washington, where I was also guest of honor. It was a busy year as well: I was working on A Wild And Lonely Place, more of a thriller than my previous books; compiling a short story collection, The McCone Files, for a small press; and researching the music business for McCone's next adventure, 1996's The Broken Promise Land.
Research has always been one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. I'm a demon researcher. In college, I would go to the library for specific information, take a stack of films to the microfilm machine, and emerge hours later, red-eyed from having gotten off on interesting—but irrelevant—tangents. Had the Internet existed then, I probably wouldn't have emerged at all.
I conduct four different kinds of research: from written sources, conversations with experts, Internet searches, and on-site visits to locations I'm planning to use. The last, by far, is my favorite. Being in a place, photographing it, and making tape-recorded notes can provide unexpected insights or ideas—and is also a perfect excuse for a vacation. Since Bill and I both set the majority of our novels in California, we've had to divide the state between us; one of us may use a certain locale, and the other will return to it years later to describe it in its current state. A walk with friends near the California-Mexico border resulted in Wolf in the Shadows after one of them suggested I should write about the problems there. Later, a border patrol officer, who saw me walking on an isolated and dangerous mesa and almost arrested me, allowed me to interview him after I explained who I was and what I was doing there. A stay with friends in a depressed former steel-making town in Pennsylvania prompted me to set part of 1994's Till the Butchers Cut Him Down in a similar locale. A trip to the Caribbean and an article about offshore betting inspired A Wild and Lonely Place. A vacation on the island of Kauai spawned my 1999 novel A Walk through the Fire.
Sometimes a research trip is undertaken for fact checking, to flesh out descriptions I've already written from photographs or distant knowledge of a place. The most frustrating and amusing of these was when Bill and I journeyed to the desert community of Borrego Springs, California, and found the town to be nothing like the posh resort we'd described in Double. However, we'd posited a gypsum mine in the hills near there and went looking for a suitable location for our fictional creation; as we drove, a collection of buildings appeared in the distance, and we found a gypsum mine situated at the exact place we'd imagined.
The most fascinating and challenging research task I've taken on was in 1996, when I began flying lessons. I'd made Hy Ripinsky a pilot, for no special reason except my first husband had been a pilot and flying had always interested me. Of course, I didn't think at the time that Sharon and Hy would ever be together—or that once McCone was exposed to flying, her nature would demand that she become a pilot herself. A writer friend in San Francisco who was a pilot helped me with some of the technical aspects, but quickly became embarrassed because I kept getting things wrong (while acknowledging his help in print); he flew up to Petaluma to have lunch with me at the airport, and by the time I got there he had all but signed me up for lessons with an instructor.
After several lessons, Peggy Bakker, the instructor, didn't know what to make of me. I'd explained that I was researching, but the fact didn't really sink in with her, because most of her students were intent on getting their licenses. A dedicated instructor, she bought a couple of my books and read them. Before our next lesson, she said to me, "I've figured out why we're not making progress. There are three people in our two-seater plane—you, me, and Sharon McCone." She was right; I was too concerned with getting the facts and the feel of flying down for fictional purposes to concentrate on becoming a good pilot. I was writing Both Ends of the Night (1997) by the seat of my pants, one step ahead of what McCone needed to know. I admire Peggy for sticking with me and checking the facts in a number of my subsequent manuscripts; she's proved a good friend and flying companion—so long as it's her steady hand on the controls.
Speaking of control—actually lack thereof—the "Sharon McCone" series has been optioned for film and television over the years, beginning in 1984. People at events always ask me about film possibilities; in this visually oriented society having a movie made of one's work seems to be held in higher regard than the work itself. None of these options was ever exercised; although the most recent almost resulted in a TV movie, the deal fell apart in the casting stage. The attention span in Hollywood is very short, and people—in this case, CBS television—lose interest in a project as soon as they confront adversity. I'm of two minds about McCone never making it onto film: it would have been interesting and lucrative, but had it been done badly, it would have had an adverse effect on my work and possibly on my readership.
I did have one excellent experience with film. In 1993 I was contacted by a documentary filmmaker, Pamela Beere Briggs, who was interested in doing a film about the upsurge in popularity of contemporary women mystery writers. Over the next seven years, Pamela and her husband, Bill McDonald, did taped interviews and filmed scenes with Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and me. Seven years seems an inordinate amount of time for one fifty-three-minute documentary, but funding for the arts was—and is—in short supply in this country, and Pamela and Bill had to cobble together grants in order to keep going. We joke about the fact that when I first met them they weren't married; by the time the film was screened, they were married and their daughter, Natalie, was mature enough to attend the premier.
By 1999 I had written eleven "Sharon McCone" novels back to back. I was getting burnt out on the series, and both Bill and Sara Ann Freed noticed it. The year before, Sara Ann had approached me about doing what is known in the trade as a "stand-alone" or nonseries novel. The rationale behind this request was that in the past few years several series writers had written stand-alones that had resulted in a marked jump in their sales figures. I turned the idea down because I had a particularly compelling idea for the next installment—2000's Listen to the Silence—in which McCone finds out she is adopted and searches for her birth parents—but I had none for a nonseries novel. The next year, Sara Ann again approached me, and this time I did have an idea.
Bill and I had bought a small house on the Mendocino County coast, and I was driving home from there with a friend, several days before I was due to have a conference with Sara Ann in New York, when my car broke down on the coast highway. No one stopped to help us. Regular motorists and the highway patrol zoomed by. Finally, hours later, a sheriff's deputy arrived and radioed the dispatcher to contact Triple-A for a tow truck. After the incident I couldn't get my mind off how vulnerable my friend and I had been while stranded, and an image appeared in my mind: a young woman, much more vulnerable than we, stand-ing beside her car while no one stopped. It would make a perfect opening for a novel, I thought. Sara Ann agreed, and I began working on my 2001 novel, Point Deception.
The story was originally to be set in Mendocino County. It involves a mass murder in a canyon similar to the one containing two creepy, deserted houses that Bill and I had discovered near our well house. I soon realized, however, that an actual location wouldn't do; I was saying negative and unfounded things about the county sheriff's department who, when they loitered in our driveway to catch speeders on a blind curve on the coast highway, also checked on the security of our house. A new county, Soledad, had to be created and sandwiched between Mendocino and Humboldt. This was probably the high point of power in my life—altering the California coastline to suit my purposes.
When Point Deception was published, critics proclaimed that I had begun a new series—featuring Rhoda Swift, the sheriff's deputy heroine—while patently ignoring the fact that the book had had another, and equal, male protagonist. This got my back up; I had no intention of starting another series. I decided that in subsequent "Soledad County" books, Swift would make only cameo appearances. The county would become the main connective tissue. I interspersed two other "Soledad County" novels with McCone novels—Cyanide Wells and Cape Perdido—before concluding from reader response that what people really wanted was Sharon McCone.
The year 2003 was a sad one: my friend and editor, Sara Ann Freed, died in June. I finished the next "Sharon McCone" novel, The Dangerous Hour, numbly, saddened by the knowledge that she would never read it. The relationship that had proven so inspiring over the years had come to an end.
I wish Sara Ann had been alive in April of 2005, when I received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. It was both thrilling and humbling to have my name added to a list that began fifty years earlier with Dame Agatha Christie. The award belongs, not solely to me, but to Sara Ann and Bill and all the other good people who offered aid and comfort along the way.
In September of 2005, Bill and I were given lifetime achievement awards at the yearly fan convention for our respective bodies of work. The presenter assured us, however, that the fans who voted for us didn't want us to stop writing. And we have no intention of doing so.
An interviewer recently asked me if there had been a defining moment in my career. Something that had made me feel I'd really accomplished what I set out to do. Certainly the honors I've received, particularly the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award. But more than those … well, I'll create another scene for you.
Imagine the old San Francisco Public Library, a magnificent edifice with wide marble steps sweeping up to the card catalog room. Picture a twenty-something version of me, walking up those steps to the mystery shelves, where she fingers the place where a book of her own might one day sit. Then, burdened by as many volumes as she can check out for the week, she goes to the card catalog, opens the last "M" drawer, and fingers the place where one day a card of her own might be filed.
Fast forward some twenty-five years. A fifty-something version of me walks up those same steps. While the cameras of the documentary film crew roll, she goes to the mystery shelves and takes down one of her own books. Then she goes to the card catalogue, opens the last "M" drawer, and the camera zooms in on the card listing her latest title.
That's about as defining a moment as there is.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, fourth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, August, 1982, p. 1510; January 15, 1984, p. 718; October 1, 1984, p. 192; April 15, 1999, Emily Melton, review of A Walk through the Fire, p. 1483; May 1, 2000, Barbara Bibel, "The Booklist Interview: Marcia Muller," p. 1596; May 1, 2001, Barbara Bibel, review of Point Deception, p. 1638; February 15, 2002, Candace Smith, review of Point Deception, p. 1039; May 1, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Cyanide Wells, p. 1550; May 1, 2004, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Dangerous Hour, p. 1514; May 1, 2005, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Cape Perdido, p. 1532.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), December 7, 1985; April 11, 1987.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2002, review of Dead Midnight, p. 621; June 1, 2003, review of Cyanide Wells, p. 782; April 15, 2004, review of The Dangerous Hour, p. 365.
Kliatt, May, 2002, Nola Theiss, review of Point Deception, p. 52; March, 2005, review of The Dangerous Hour, p. 51.
Library Journal, October 1, 1977; October 1, 1983, p. 1890; October 1, 1984, p. 1865; May 15, 2001, Ruth H. Miller, review of Point Deception, p. 167; June 1, 2002, Michelle Foyt, review of Dead Midnight, p. 201; June 15, 2003, Michelle Foyt, review of Cyanide Wells, p. 106; June 1, 2004, Rex E. Klett, review of The Dangerous Hour, p. 106; June 1, 2005, Michelle Foyt, review of Cape Perdido, p. 107.
Los Angeles Times, August 14, 1985; June 6, 1986.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 10, 1982, p. 7; February 12, 1989, p. 6.
New York Times, August 13, 2001, Marcia Muller, "Novelist's Life Is Altered by a Confident Alter Ego: Writers on Writing," p. E1
New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1982, p. 39; October 6, 1985; March 12, 1989, p. 24; December 24, 1989, p. 23; November 4, 1990, p. 30; August 19, 2001, review of Point Deception, p. 14; July 7, 2002, Marilyn Stasio, review of Dead Midnight, p. 16.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), July 8, 2001, Les Roberts, "Pacific Coast Plays Role in Murder Tale," p. 10I; July 20, 2003, Les Roberts, "Marcia Muller Turns Suspense into Fine Art," p. J9.
Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), August 18, 2002, Christine W. Randall, "Muller's Heroine's Investigation Hits Too Close to Home," p. 3.
Publishers Weekly, April 30, 1982, p. 48; December 24, 1982, p. 49; September 9, 1983, p. 51; September 23, 1983, p. 63; April 27, 1998, review of While Other People Sleep, p. 48; November 16, 1998, review of Duo, p. 58; June 25, 2001, review of Point Deception, p. 53, and interview with Muller, p. 54; June 3, 2002, review of Dead Midnight, p. 67; June 2, 2003, review of Cyanide Wells, p. 37; June 7, 2004, review of The Dangerous Hour, p. 35; June 27, 2005, review of Cape Perdido, p. 45.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 4, 2004, Judith Evans, "Muller, Jance, and Reichs Provide New Thrills," p. E03.
School Library Journal, April 1, 2001, Barbara Perkins, review of Listen to the Silence, p. 155; May, 2001, Katherine Fitch, review of Listen to the Silence, p. 176.
USA Today, July 27, 1987.
Washington Times, August 8, 2001, Judith Kreiner, review of Point Deception, p. 8.
Bookreporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (January 24, 2006), interview with Muller.
Marcia Muller Home Page, http://www.marciamuller.com (January 24, 2006).
Time Warner Bookmark Online, http://www.twbookmark.com/ (December 2, 2000), interview with Muller.