To mystery readers, Marcia Muller genuinely needs no introduction, so we'll keep it short. However, for those who aren't already familiar with the creator of the tough but humane California private eye named Sharon McCone, it's worth mentioning that Muller's new book, Listen to the Silence, is the 21st McCone adventure. In it McCone goes home to deal with her father's death, and discovers a long-secret document that changes the lives of everyone in the family. To tell more would be to break the cardinal rule of reviewing mystery novels, because the book is surprising and well, it's a mystery novel. People get hurt; McCone investigates. The only people having a good time are the readers.
Muller published her first Sharon McCone mystery, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, in 1977. "The ironic thing about it," she says from her home in California, "was that after the first book I couldn't sell another word for four years. My first publisher was David McKay Company, and with the publication of my first book they stopped doing fiction." Not surprisingly, at first Muller considered this development an ill omen, but she persevered. "Four years later, I submitted a manuscript that I had been shopping around for almost the entire time to Tom Dunne of St. Martin's Press." Dunne, who now has his own popular mystery imprint at St. Martin's, bought the book.
The so-called hard-boiled female detective was an idea whose time had come. Muller is credited with leading the pack. "It was in three months' order," Muller remembers. "First, Sara Paretsky came out with her first V. I. Warshawski novel; then Sue Grafton came out with Kinsey Millhone; then my second Sharon McCone came out the month after that."Before publishing her first couple of McCone novels, Muller was trying her hand at journalism. "Not very successfully," she adds, and laughs. "I had a tendency to make things up. Editors don't respond too kindly to that." She began to think that perhaps she ought to turn her attention to fiction, where making things up was a virtue rather than a vice.
Muller sees no end in sight for the series. Fortunately her titles aren't forced into a predictable succession, as in the case of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone books, all of which begin with a letter of the alphabet (for example, O Is for Outlaw).
"You know, Sue and I were talking about that last year, about how she locked herself into 26 novels. You can trap yourself early on with certain things that seem like a good idea then." Over the years, Muller has discovered that, however much fun it may be to keep returning to familiar characters and settings, writing series fiction has its unforeseen complications. "There are things in my series I would have done differently, and things that I had to just stop doing because of changing times. For instance, the legal cooperative that Sharon was working for in the beginning was a product of the '70s, the poverty law movement that was going on then. And after awhile it became very restrictive in terms of the types of cases she could take on. So I had to have her quit that and go out on her own."
The continuing adventures and ever-changing life of Sharon McCone have proven quite successful. Muller has many thousands of devoted fans and has won numerous awards. She has taken home both Anthony and Shamus awards, honors named respectively for deceased mystery writer and critic Anthony Boucher and for an old nickname for private investigators. The Private Eye Writers of America gave Muller their Life Achievement Award in 1993.
Muller is married to mystery writer Bill Pronzini, and they have collaborated on three novels, a dozen or so anthologies (including one published last year by scholarly Oxford University Press), and what she describes as "one very long, five-pound book," 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. Muller suspects that she and her husband will retire from anthologizing. "They're a lot of work, and the introductory material is a type of writing that although we've done it many times neither of us really enjoys doing. It's more fun picking the stories and getting them together, picking a theme for them."
Sharon McCone isn't the only series character Muller has written about. She's also the creator of museum curator Elena Oliverez and international art investigator Joanna Stark. "I've toyed with the idea of bringing one or the other character back in a McCone novel at some point. It might be interesting just to see two characters that I've created separately interact." Muller has already performed a version of this trick, in Double from the mid-1980s, a novel she and her husband co-wrote, starring both Sharon McCone and Pronzini's popular Nameless Detective. Pronzini's career demonstrates other hazards of series writing that occur when writers incorporate certain gimmicks. Not only does his detective have no name, which requires author and readers alike to simply call him Nameless, but Pronzini trapped himself into one-word titles for these books. "He's now doing a lot of non-series things," Muller says, "so he's able to use a wonderful title he finds, but for awhile there he was giving all the really good titles to me."
Asked about the provenance of the title Listen to the Silence, Muller laughs and says, "Now whose was that? It's gotten where I can't remember which ones were mine and which were his. I think that one was his."
Michael Sims is a writer, curator, and regular contributor to BookPage.