Friday, December 16, 2016
FFB: The Spook Lights Affair - Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini
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.