Friday, December 16, 2016

FFB: The Spook Lights Affair - Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini

THE STORY: Sabina Carpenter's latest gig is more suited for a professional chaperone than a private detective. She's one half of the team of Carpenter and Quincannon and she's got loads of experience as a former Pink Rose with the distinguished Pinkerton Detectives. But watching over spoiled rich girl Virginia St. Ives whose rebellious nature is getting the ire of her father has landed Sabina with this job that's one part nanny and one part spy. At a fancy ball Virginia throws a tantrum, rushes to a cliffside gazebo, climbs atop a parapet and throws herself over to the rocks below. Sabina is beyond shocked and sounds the alarm about Virginia's melodramatic suicide.  But when they get to the cliffs the body is gone. Meanwhile John Quincannon is on the hunt for $35,000 stolen from a Wells Fargo office and with luck nab the thieves in the process. The ten percent reward for recovery of all the money is more than enough incentive to get the job done. The two detectives compare notes on each other's cases and soon learn there are linking suspects in both and are further surprised when an additional case involving ghostly manifestations at a makeshift seaside village provides them with the key to the solutions of what happened to Virginia and who stole the money.

THE CHARACTERS: John Quincannon first appeared in a few western novels written solely by Bill Pronzini back in the 1980s.  He began his exploits as a Secret Service agent battling counterfeiters and later teamed up with Sabina in a book of short stories when they start their own detective agency. Sabina and John have a good working relationship, a nice way of playing off each other's personalities and methods.  Sabina is the no nonsense type while Quincannon tends to be more blustery and impulsive; she leads with cool logic and he with gut instinct. He's also a bit conflicted in his attraction for her but Sabina will have none of that. Apparently this is a recurring subplot in the series.

The remaining cast make for a motley crew with some of the typical Western archetypes you'd expect (the stagecoach driver with the heart of gold subbing for a similar taxi driver found in private eye books of the 40s and 50s, for example) along with a handful of historical figures (Adolph Sutro is the host of the party at the novel's opening) and some well done supporting characters like Lucas Whiffing, the bicycle shop employee who strikes Virginia's fancy; Bob Cantwell, a no good gambler; Miss Kingston, one of Virginia's friends who is of major help to Sabina; and the oddball mystery man who appears mysteriously on the scene in order to help both John and Sabina with his amazing finds and world class detective work. Oddball because the guy claims to be Sherlock Holmes.

INNOVATIONS: The book is structured with alternating viewpoints as we follow Sabina and John each taking care of their own cases. With the introduction of the third case which gives the book its title the two detectives find their cases intersecting and overlapping with more and more mysteries revealing patterns of behavior in Lucas Whiffing and David St. Ives and several others.

As might be guessed Virginia's suicide is actually a clever bit of fakery that involves a variation of an impossible crime that well read mystery fans might be able to pick up on.  Even if they don't' recognize the one book with a very similar "miracle problem" the authors have done a fine job of planting f some well hidden clues that will help the reader figure out how Virginia made it look like she plummeted to her "death" then disappeared. The identity of the murderer (for wherever missing money is involved there are sure to be dead bodies eventually) is a nice surprise with some more well done work with dropping clues among the red herrings.  Overall, there is a pleasant retro feel to this mystery novel not only because it is set in days of yore, but for the plotting that recalls some of the better Golden Age and traditional mystery novels of the past.

THINGS I LEARNED:  There is a lot about the history of San Francisco's mayor Adolph Sutro whose wise investments in real estate and land made him one of the richest men in mid 19th century California. He was responsible for building an aquarium, developing the adult playground known as the Sutro Baths, and planted hundreds of eucalyptus to take advantage of tax free status of 'forested' areas.  He opened his estate to the public charging each person a small fee for the pleasure of strolling through his grounds but security guards made sure no one turned the stroll into a picnic. No food baskets were allowed on the grounds.

The book is peppered with unusual 19th century terms (someone's face is the "color of clabbered milk") to give it a nice period flavor.  But as with most contemporary mysteries that are set in the past there is a tendency to lapse into 21st century vernacular and thinking. Not a major flaw but it can be jarring when someone begins to contemplate whether or not Virginia was "feeling depressed" and if that led to her suicide. Quincannon has a trove of 19th century exclamations that made me smile. Similarly, when one of the villains lets loose with a rant of foul language the authors have fun in conveying them without actually resorting to swear words.

EASY TO FIND? The Spook Lights Affair (2013) came out only three years ago. It's hardly a forgotten book. Of course it's easy to find. You'll be able to choose print or digital with no problem. Knock yourself out. I enjoyed it a heckuva lot and look forward to more of John and Sabina's adventures.

10 comments:

  1. I've read only the Carpenter and Quincannon stories that had appeared in LOUIS L'AMOUR'S WESTERN MAGAZINE and perhaps one or two others (In EQMM, as sieve-like memory recalls)...I see at least two novels in the series Up Today for FFB, so clearly it's past time! Thanks.

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    1. If you include my review there are three of the Quincannon and Carpenter series reviewed for today's tribute to Bill and Marcia. Books one, two and three, in fact. One -- THE BODY SNATCHERS AFFAIR, the third -- was reviewed twice. The fifth and most recent book is being published next month. You'll have many to choose from to start you off while I have a lot of catching up to do!

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  2. Been looking forward to start reading these - thanks John, great review.

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    1. Bill and Marcia really have a love for all the conventions of traditional mystery plotting When they let go with their imaginations they come up with nifty puzzles and unusual "impossible" motifs.

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  3. I've been reading the Carpenter and Quincannon series, too. I just finished THE BODY SNATCHERS AFFAIR. Fun stuff!

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    1. This was a fun read. I ripped right through almost in a single day. A real throwback to the Golden Age. I was surprised to discover that there are soon to be five books in the series. The latest one coming out in January. I need to catch up!

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  4. This is a great series, isn't it? You might also want to know there was a very early novel in this series, Beyond the Grave, which was published in the 1980s and is a time-crossing crossover with one of Marcia Muller's secondary series-characters, Elena Oliverez.

    It's as splendid a mystery novel as any of these recent books, but also tinged with some sadness, because in Oliverez's time C&Q have long-since passed away.

    On a final note, the fifth entry in this series, The Dangerous Ladies Affair, will be released in early January, 2017. And that's less than a month!

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    1. Glad to see a mention of Beyond the Grave, a favorite of mine among Muller's work. It's definitely worth seeking out, as are the other two in the Elena Oliverez series.

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  5. I enjoyed The Plague of Thieves in the Carpenter and Quincannon series, and this one sounds like a good read, as well.

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  6. Correction: The Bughouse Affair, which also has the mysterious Holmesian character.

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