Created by Marcia Muller
“Marcia Muller is the founding mother of the contemporary female hard-boiled private eye.”
— Sue Grafton
Generally credited with being the first liberated female private detective of the modern era, Marcia Muller’s SHARON McCONE paved the way for the subsequentsuccess of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Laura Lippmann’s Tess Monaghan and about a zillion other feisty American female gumshoes. It should be pointed, however, 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 regardless of historical nitpicking, the McCone series is worth checking out–a major milestone in the development of the smart, tough female eye written by a woman author which for too long had remained closer to a male-created fantasy cartoon than any woman you’d ever meet in real life.
So, instead of some wardrobe-challenged bimbo, or some simpering Victorian-era heroine, we had a refreshingly down-to-earth, thoroughly modern detective, savvy and as hard-nosed as she has to be, especially in the early books–a level-headed investigator with a tendency to occasionally get a bit too personally involved in her cases, that’s balanced by a certain tough-mindedness born out of pragmatism, not macho theatrics, particularly as the series evolved.
That toughness is rooted, no doubt, in her childhood. Sharon grew up in San Diego, one of several rowdy, trouble-prone “Scottish-Irish brats” (with a smidge of Shoshone blood). 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, discovering she not only had a knack for the work but sort of enjoyed it. And so she 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 Hank Zahn, an idealistic lawyer, who would soon become not only her boss but also one of her best friends.
Some have whimpered that she’s too “politically correct” but while McCone’s cases tend to touch on social issues, for the most part–thanks in part no doubt to her innate levelheadedness and obvious empathy, and the author’s knack for engaging storytelling–I’ve never felt she bangs any drum too loudly.
In 1993, Muller received “The Eye,” the Private Eye Writers of America‘s Lifetime Achievement Award, which is given for excellence and contribution to the genre for a body of work. It was about time.
Alas, 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 P.I. acquired an apprentice (later an associate), Rae Kelleher; and a sometime-office manager, Ted Smalley, and computer whiz and reluctant op, her nephew Mick Savage.
Even more importantly, though, was the introduction of 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, Hy is part-James Bond and part-Lance White. He’d be right at home in a Harlequin romance, but has always seemed curiously out of place to me, like he dropped by on his way to a romance novel.
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 of sometimes prickly 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 occasionally turned downright mopey, particularly when she wasn’t smugly detailing how wonderful her life with new hubby Hy (even his name is annoying) was. Sharon also acquired a pilot’s license, and then she left All Souls to open her own agency, aided by her nephew Mick 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–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 increasingly tangled and melodramatic backstories) expanded and cluttered up the narrative, and the geographical reach has spread to Sharon’s ranch in California’s High Desert and her detective agency has opened offices at least as far east as Chicago, Sharon herself has occasionally become something of a bystander, overshadowed in her own series, and the mystery elements of this once tight, taut series of books have at times become seriously diluted, even as she continues to fight the good fight.
Fortunately, despite the soap opera-ish elements that have crept into series, 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.
I just wish she was in the spotlight more often.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marcia Muller is a New York Times bestselling author of over 70 novels, and besides the PWA’s Eye, she’s received the 2005 Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, a Ridley Award, an American Mystery Award, and the Anthony Award, while Sharon McCone received the PWA Hammer from the PWA in 2010 for her longevity and contribution to the genre.
By the way, if you’re wondering why her most famous creation keeps running into Bill Pronzini‘s Nameless, a fellow San Francisco P.I., whom she calls “Lone Wolf,” well, there’s a reason for that. Like Nameless, Sharon’s been constantly evolving throughout her series, making each book in the series another chapter in a much larger story, and if you live long enough in San Francisco, you end up meeting everyone. Plus, the fact that Muller and Pronzini are married to each other might have something to do with it.
In fact, the two have occasionally collaborated on the series featuring Sabina Carpenter & John Quincannon, who run their own detective agency, offering “Professional Detective Services” in 1890s San Francisco. Not that Muller needs any man’s help in creating interesting characters. On her own, she’s also written about Elena Oliverez, an art museum curator and amateur sleuth; Joanna Stark, an art security expert, and the Soledad County series.
- “After all these years, Muller’s series remains a gold standard for female detective stories.”
- “Does anyone read the McCone series anymore for the mysteries? I gave up a few books ago, because I found the emphasis had switched from crime to domestic issues. And I didn’t like most of the new characters, especially her hokey, sucky boyfriend. OOOH! A government agent/pilot with a shadowy and possibly tragic past. Did she pick him up at a used character sale at Harlequin or something? I kept hoping for a plane crash.”
— Nathalie Bumpeau
- Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Ask the Cards a Question (1982) | Buy this book
- The Chesire Cat’s Eye (1983) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Games to Keep the Dark Away (1984) | Buy this book
- Leave a Message for Willie (1984) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- Double (1984; with Bill Pronzini) | Buy this book
Featuring Pronzini’s Nameless.
- There’s Nothing to Be Afraid Of (1985) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- Eye of the Storm (1988) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- There’s Something in a Sunday (1989) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- The Shape of Dread (1989) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- Trophies and Dead Things (1990) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- Where Echoes Live (1991) | Buy this book
- Pennies on a Dead Woman’s Eyes (1992) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Wolf in the Shadows (1993) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Till the Butchers Cut Him Down (1994) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- A Wild and Lonely Place (1995) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Broken Promise Land (1996) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Both Ends of the Night (1997) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- While Other People Sleep (1998) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- A Walk Through Fire (1999) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Listen to the Silence (2000) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Dead Midnight (2002) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Dangerous Hour (2004) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Vanishing Point (2006) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Ever-Running Man (2007) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Burn Out (2008) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Locked In (2009) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Coming Back (2010) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- City of Whispers (2011) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Looking for Yesterday (2012) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Night Searchers (2014) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Someone Always Knows (2016) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Color of Fear (2017) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- The Breakers (2018) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Ice and Stone (2021) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- “Merrill-Go-Round” (1981, Arbor House of Mystery and Suspense; also The Black Lizard Anthology #2)
- “Wild Mustard” (1984, The Eyes Have It)
- “The Broken Men” (1985, Academy Mystery Novellas, Vol. 1)
- “Deceptions” (1987, A Matter of Crime #1)
- “Cache and Carry” (1988, Small Felonies; with Bill Pronzini, featuring Nameless)
- “Deadly Fantasies” (April 1989, AHMM)
- “All the Lonely People” (1989, Sisters in Crime)
- “Silent Night” (1989, Mistletoe Mysteries)
- “The Place that Time Forgot” (1990, Sisters in Crime #2)
- “Somewhere in the City” (1990, Vol. 23, No. 2, The Armchair Detective)
- “Final Resting Place” (1990)
- “Benny’s Place” (1991, A Woman’s Eye)
- “The Wall” (1993, Criminal Intent; Rae Kelleher)
- “The Lost Coast” (1994, Deadly Allies #2)
- “The File Closed” (1995, The McCone Files)
- “The Last Open File” (1995, The McCone Files; February 1997, EQMM)
- “Knives at Midnight” (1996, Guilty As Charged)
- “The Holes in the System” (June 1996, EQMM; Rae Kelleher)
- “If You Can’t Take the Heat” (1996, MHCMM #1; 1998, Lethal Ladies II)
- “Solo” (1996, For Crime Out Loud, Vol. 2; April 1997, EQMM)
- “One Final Arrangement” (Summer 1998, MHCMM; Mick Savage)
- “Recycle” (Summer 1999, MHCMM; Hy Ripinsky)
- “Up at the Riverside” (1999, Irreconcilable Differences)
- “The Imposter” (2001, The Mysterious Press Anniversary Anthology)
- “Irrefutable Evidence” (November 2005, EQMM)
- “Telegraphing” (June 2009, EQMM)
- “April 13” (2020, Deadly Anniversary)
- The McCone Files (1995) | Buy this book | Buy the audio
- McCone and Friends (2000) | Buy this book
Consists of 3 stories told by Sharon McCone, two by her associate Rae Kelleher, and one each by the characters Mick Savage, Ted Smalley and Hy Ripinsky.
- Somewhere in the City (2007) | Buy this book
Nineteen more stories, some featuring Sharon McCone.
- WHATEVER HAPPENED TO:
In 1993, a series of “movies of the week” for U.S. television were supposedly in production by the Canadian film company Telescene, based on Muller’s short stories and novels, but the project fell through.
Then, in 2000, it was announced that Sharon McCone was being developed for CBS by Spring Creek Productions. The announcement was made by Charles Champlin at the Los Angeles premiere screening of Women of Mystery, a documentary featuring interviews with McCone, as well as Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky. That production has fallen through the cracks as well.
- Partners in Crime
An interesting interview from 1996, conducted by David Templeton, with Marcia Muller and her husband, Bill Pronzini, on how they’ve found the write stuff in one another and in their then-15-year relationship. Written by David Templeton.
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- September 18, 2021
THE BOTTOM LINE: Smart, tough & nobody’s bimbo, still one of the most important (and longest running) female eyes of all time, living a life that’s at least as complicated as yours.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Bluefox808 for the tip.