Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When many people think of US series that feature female private investigators, they think of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. But predating both of those series (‘though just by a few years) was Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone. That series doesn’t always get the attention that the other two series do but Muller’s work has been highly influential and this series can only be improved by a look at some of her writing. So today let’s turn the spotlight on the first of Muller’s Sharon McCone series Edwin of the Iron Shoes.
As the novel begins, McCone gets a late-night call from her employer Hank Zahn, senior associate at All Souls Cooperative, San Francisco’s legal services group. She rushes out to meet him at Joan’s Unique Antiques where the body of shop owner Joan Albritton has just been discovered. McCone feels a special sense of loss at this death. She’d gotten to know and like Albritton in the course of investigating some incidents of arson and vandalism in the neighbourhood. Albritton and some other antique merchants believed that someone was trying to get them to sell their property cheaply and buy up the land, and they wanted to know who was responsible Zahn took the case and McCone’s been looking into it. Homicide detective Lieutenant Greg Marcus has been assigned to investigate the murder, so he immediately wants to know what McCone has found out about the other incidents on the street.
Merchants’ Association head and shop owner Charlie Cornish empowers the legal co-operative and thus McCone to look into the murder on behalf of the Association and McCone begins to work on that case to find out how it’s related to the possible land-grabbing scheme. Immediately McCone runs into trouble because Marcus does not want a private investigator doing police work. It doesn’t help matters that McCone is a woman (this book was published in 1977). Nonetheless, Marcus knows that McCone knows the people in the area. She also knows the background of the vandalism and arson incidents and it’s quite likely that Albritton’s murder is related to those events. So he reluctantly agrees to co-operate with McCone.
The two sleuths begin their work and not long afterward Marcus begins to suspect Charlie Cornish. Cornish had had a relationship with Albritton but lately, she’d been apparently seeing bail bondsman Ben Harmon. Harmon was helping Albritton with some legal trouble her grandson Chris was having and the two seemed to have gotten very close. McCone doesn’t believe that Cornish is guilty so she looks more deeply into matters to find out who else would have wanted to kill the victim. What she finds is that both Joan Albritton and Charlie Cornish had secrets to keep and they’re not the only ones. In fact, the more she learns about both people’s backgrounds the more McCone wonders whether she should have been so quick to assume Cornish is innocent. But at her core McCone knows he didn’t kill Albritton. Then there’s another fire and a break-in at Albritton’s shop and now it’s clear that someone is determined that McCone will not find out the truth about what’s been happening on Salem Street.
McCone perseveres though and bit by bit peels away the layers of what’s been happening in the neighbourhood. In the end she finds out the truth about why and by whom Albritton was killed, and what it has to do with the bid for the local land.
One of the important elements that run through this novel is the tight-knit group of local antique dealers They are a real community; they know each other well and they help each other. We really sense their fear and their sense of having what you might call a common enemy as they find themselves quite literally under attack. As McCone investigates, we also learn some of their backstories and we see the network of relationships among them.
Also woven throughout this novel is interesting information on the way the antique dealing business works. We learn how shop owners work with importers to stock their shops. We also learn just a little about how the governments of the US and of other countries monitor the import and export of antiques to prevent fraud and forgery. When the novel begins, McCone admits to knowing absolutely nothing about antiques but as she works this case, we follow along as she learns the business.
This is a PI novel. So readers get to see how private investigators find out information. McCone taps friends and acquaintances for expertise, she follows up on publicly-available information and she spends her share of time simply following people and observing too. In fact, there’s a humourous scene in which she’s trying to gain entrance to an office building after hours. She gets her chance when a group of students taking an evening seminar come in to use the building and she falls in with them, pretending to be a student herself. There’s another scene in which she crashes a company cocktail party pretending to be an employee.
Another element in this novel is the developing relationship between Marcus and McCone. Each of them is quite prejudiced against the other at first and each is strong-willed. But little by little they get to know one another better. A relationship develops between them and McCone finds out that Marcus is much more than he seems on the surface. That said though, the main focus in this story is the mystery. McCone and Marcus do not spend all of their time obsessing about each other or their relationship.
And then there’s the character of Sharon McCone herself. She’s capable and smart, as one has to be to be a successful PI. She also has plenty of courage and sometimes takes more risks than she should, although that doesn’t mean she’s completely foolhardy. And she’s refreshingly free of the angst and personal demons that far too many fictional private investigators have. She works hard and has a strong sense of loyalty to Hank Zahn and the idea behind the legal co-operative: that quality legal help should be accessible to anyone. She’s very much a champion of the underdog.
The mystery itself makes sense and is believable, especially as we get to know the characters better. And both McCone and Marcus find out the truth in credible ways. The mystery aspect of the plot remains the central focus throughout the novel so readers who prefer novels with many different in-depth sub-plots will be disappointed. But I think it’s also fair to say that this focus makes for a solid pace and well-knit plot.
Edwin of the Iron Shoes is a PI novel with a believable mystery but without the hardboiled, sometimes gratuitous explicitness that a lot of other PI novels have. It’s solidly set in San Francisco and features a smart, courageous and likeable sleuth. But what’s your view? Have you read Edwin of the Iron Shoes? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 27 August/Tuesday 28 August – Faceless Killers – Henning Mankell
Monday 3 September/Tuesday 4 September – What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn
Monday 10 September/Tuesday 11 September – The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson