I've grown up and grown old with the daughters of Sisters in Crime.
Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, these three constitute the holy trinity of feminist mystery writers and are the founders of the venerable professional organization, Sisters in Crime. Their detectives were the first women to be tough, to carry guns and use them, to get shot and beaten up, to fight back, to wreck cars, to sleep with more than one man a decade. All readers and most writers of contemporary mystery fiction owe them a huge debt.
But Marcia Muller was first of the first. Her 1977 Edward of the Iron Shoes introduces Sharon McCone, anticipating the debuts of Kinsey Milhone and VI Warshawski by five years. And Muller's detective has developed into the most interesting and credible of the three protagonists.
While I love Vic Warshawski best, or did for many years, she hasn't aged well. She still lives hand-to-mouth, still takes stupid risks (no, not all risks are stupid, but most of Vic's are, willfully so); she still hurts the people she loves - both of them - and has failed to form any adult friendships, having instead surrogates whose shins she can kick: a mother and a dog-sharing grandpa. And Vic never thinks about things. Well, yes, she follows causes, sometimes of her own choosing, sometimes those of others, but she never thinks about those issues in the abstract or big-picture sorts of ways. She doesn't read, except for newspapers. And what passes for self-awareness is generally just "I'll-show-them" justification. All this was acceptable in the mid-80s when she was in her 30's. Thirty years on she's turned into the sort of old acquaintance you'd leave a coffee shop to avoid. (Although, to be fair, the recent Body Work is the best installment in over a decade.)
Kinsey Milhone is still trapped in the 1980's, literally. She also has a surrogate grandfather, Henry, and lives hand to mouth in a fixed-up garage. But she's still young, so there's some reason for it. (I've often wondered if Grafton regrets her decision to age the series in real time, but I don't really care enough to go look up an interview.) Less deliberately, Paretsky let Vic get stuck in her late 30's for about 20 years. By any reckoning of the series' chronology, she's now in her 60's, but still playing an impulsive thirty-something.
Sharon McCone grew up. She moved out of the closet under the stairs into a real office then into her own agency. She bought a house. She learned to fly. She fell in love, eventually, with a man nearly as interesting as she is. She learned that she's adopted and tracked down her birth parents. Her extended family includes real relatives and a wide variety of dear friends who aren't stand-ins for anything. And she provides as much help as she receives from them.
All three writers claim righteous feminist credentials, but Muller's McCone lives those values most consistently. The first-person narration always identifies women (as well as men) by their last names until they are well-known enough to first-name. Muller is even-handed with authority figures, sometimes male, sometimes female. McCone's gender-based conflicts generally arise from believable circumstances - not simple malice -- as does her surmounting of those problems.
When McCone possesses information that the police should have, she calls them, something Vic would rather cut off her right hand than do, ever.
And she thinks. No, she's not a reader, like Guido Brunetti or Harriet Vane, but she thinks complexly and logically about issues of family, immigration, suicide, land use, poverty, and - of course - justice. She also has a self-awareness that both Warshawski and Milhone lack. This is most evident in Both Ends of the Night, where she investigates the murder of the woman who taught her to fly, and While Other People Sleep, which is (appropriately) about identity theft. These two novels are sequential and, along with A Wild and Lonely Place and The Broken Promise Land, constitute a realistically developed coming-of-age for McCone, both in her own spirit and her dealings with others.
This is the 28th novel in the series - over three decades of plots and not a stinker in the lot. (OK, the Hawaii book is unlikely, yes it is, but people do behave oddly in the tropics and the Kaui tourist board must have tugged at Muller's heartstrings in some cosmic way to generate that gothic tale. But that's just one - ONE ! of 28! -- that's not excellent.) The continuity is virtually flawless. There are no massive contradictions and no convenient add-ons.
Having praised the series so lavishly, I can hardly speak ill of this book. But there is one aspect of the book I need to protest.
It's full of white space. In the 90's, when More Was More in mystery/thriller land, the likes of Patterson and Robert B Parker would turn out tomes that were as much as 30% blank paper: a chapter ends on partial verso (left) page; blank recto (page); blank verso page; chapter heading on recto page; blank verso page; next chapter. So what should be 2 partial pages, the second with a chapter heading at the top, has morphed into 6 pages.
It's wasteful, bad eco-business, and grievously misleading to the book-buying public. The total page count here is 292 -- Amazon says 304, but that's counting endpapers and paste-downs. And rising 20% of those pages are naked. Inkless. Blank.
Shame on the publisher and shame on Ms Muller for letting them get away with it.
OK: Coming Back picks up after McCone's near-fatal injury in Locked In, a terrific book in which Muller gives us the narrative from all characters in third-person, not just McCone in first. I'm glad to see that she continues that here, although I wish there were more McCone chapters in this slim volume. There's no rose-colored future for the investigator, just lots of realistic therapy and hard knocks. And there are bad days - very bad. The cat dies. Nor does Muller coddle her hero, as McCone's friends try to do. She drops the character into a tough spot almost immediately. McCone's gritty determination has survived not only the comfortable affluence of a half-dozen recent novels, but the real and shattering assaults of the last two or three.
The 5-star rating is for the adventure, no points off for white space. (And boo to those people who have started giving Amazon no-stars based on Kindle prices. The author doesn't set that price. Geeze, even I'm not that grumpy.)