Generally credited with being the first liberated female private detective of the modern era, Marcia Muller's SHARON McCONE certainly helped pave the way for the later success of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski and Laura Lippmann's But I think it should be pointed that by the time people were starting to notice Sharon, P.D. James' Cordelia Gray and Liza Cody's Anna Lee had already started making their own mark across the big pond.
But who cares? Regardless of her historical significance, the McCone series is worth checking out. She's a likable enough character, and refreshingly down-to-earth, especially in the early books -- a level-headed investigator with a tendency to occasionally get a bit too involved in her cases, that's balanced by a certain tough-mindedness born out of pragmatism, not macho theatrics.
That toughness is rooted, no doubt, in her childhood. Sharon grew up in San Diego, one of several rowdy, trouble-prone "Scottish-Irish brats." To escape the familial turmoil, Sharon, the white sheep of the family, lit out for Berkeley, arriving just as the radicalism of the sixties was petering out. She worked her way through college, doing security work in department stores. She discovered she had a knack for the work and gave up her dreams of being a social worker when she landed the gig as staff investigator at All Souls, a San Francisco legal co-op founded back in the late sixties/early seventies by Sharon's boss, and good pal, Hank Zahn, an idealistic lawyer.
McCone's cases tend to touch on social issues, but for the most part -- thanks in part no doubt to that innate levelheadedness --she tends to avoid banging any drum too loudly.
In 1993, Muller received "The Eye," the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievemnet Award, which is given for excellence and contribution to the genre for a body of work. It was about time.
But it was also at about this time that the series began to change, with McCone undergoing several major shake-ups in her life. The feisty loner PI acquired an apprentice, Rae Kelleher and -- even more importantly -- a permanent significant other, the dashing and mysterious Hy Ripinsky, an at times too-good-to-be-true character, a pilot with a shadowy past in some unnamed intelligence agency or another who's part James Bond and part Lance White. He'd be right at home in a Harlequin romance, but seemed curiously out of place here.
And Sharon changed as well. She gained a little psychological depth but she also seemed to become something of a wet blanket, losing her clear-eyed pragmatism, which I'd always considered one of her charms. While the old Sharon had always been a bit of a brooder, the new Sharon turned downright mopey at times -- when she wasn't smugly detailing how wonderful her life with Hy Ripinsky was. She also acquired a pilot's license, and, even more recently, she's left All Souls to open her own agency, aided by her nephew Mick Savage and a slew of new characters, each with their own personal backstories. The changes seemed to have sparked Muller on, and the series -- which admittedly was growing a mite predictable -- has veered off in some surprising -- but not always enjoyable -- ways. And it's not just the cloying relationship with Hy Ripinsky that grates. More and more, as the number of supporting characters, family members and friends -- and their interconnected and melodramatic backstories -- expand and clutter up the narrative, Sharon herself has occasionally become something of a bystander in her own series, and the mystery elements of this once tight, taut series of books have become seriously diluted.
Fortunately, despite the soap opera-ish elements that have crept into series recently, Sharon remains a compelling and intriguing hero throughout most of the two dozen or so novels and numerous short stories in which she's appeared.
She's even occasionally run into Bill Pronzini's Nameless, a fellow San Francisco P.I., whom she calls "Lone Wolf," most recently in the 2003 novel Spook. Like Nameless, she's been constantly evolving throughout the series, making each book in the series another chapter in a much larger story. By the way, in case you're wondering why Sharon and Nameless are so chummy, well, maybe the fact that their creators are married has something to do with it.
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