There is a quote that haunts Marcia Muller. Anyone writing about the crime fiction author mentions it. It is almost a necessity because the reference perfectly sums up how important Muller is to the genre she writes within. ‘Marcia Muller is the founding mother of the contemporary female hard-boiled private eye.’ The quote comes from Sue Grafton, author of the best-selling ‘alphabet series’ and creator of female detective Kinsey Millhone.
“The founding mother of the contemporary female private eye”. With a sigh and a patient smile Marcia Muller repeats the words. “Both of us are so sick of that but it just keeps getting used.”
The women might regret the words, but the description seems appropriate. Admittedly P.D. James introduced private investigator Cordelia Gray a few years before Muller’s sleuth Sharon McCone, but Gray only appeared in two books. McCone is the first female private eye to feature in a series of novels. However, Muller tries to reject even this explanation. “I think there were a lot of other people who were working along the same lines at the same time that I was. With my first novel I was just very fortunate to get one of the few people in mainstream publishing who was interested in this type of character.”
Marcia Muller was born in Detroit in 1944. She majored in English and Journalism at the University of Michigan before moving to San Francisco in 1967, where she became a reporter. Problems arose in her job when Muller decided to make her work more interesting by letting her subjects utter words they had never spoken—not a good idea in journalism. Since there was no such problem in writing fiction, the next step seemed a logical one. In 1977 the author’s first novel was published, titled Edwin of the Iron Shoes, and Sharon McCone made her debut.
In the introduction to the collection of her Sharon McCone stories, the author explains how her sleuth was created. The character’s first name was that of a college roommate; the last name came from John McCone, a former head of the CIA. Sharon’s Native American looks, derived from her Shoshone great-grandmother, are those belonging to a former colleague of Muller’s. McCone’s background was made up from various friends. Marcia’s decision to make her detective a woman was simply because she didn’t know anything about being a man.
When asked if she shares any traits with McCone, Muller says “Sharon is more or less my alter-ego. We don’t look alike of course, and she is a lot braver than I am, but we hold the same opinions. We have the same political opinions and we have the same outlook on the world.”
After Marcia’s first novel, no further books appeared for four years. The editor of Edwin had left the publishing company and nobody was interested in publishing any more of the author’s work.
“Four years later the world of publishing had caught up and they were recognizing that, yes, there were female private-eyes, there were female cops. The whole women’s movement had affected what we were doing. So when I went to New York in 1982 I finally met an editor who immediately bought Ask the Cards A Question. It was the same publishing house where another editor had previously rejected it, proving the rule that it only takes one person to really respond to your work and get you into print.”
It is this experience that Marcia uses to explain why fellow authors, such as Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, may have had difficulty in getting their books with capable female protagonists accepted. “It is funny, the first novels of Sue Grafton (A is for Alibi) and Sara Paretsky (Indemnity Only) and my second were all published within a matter of three months. This shows how much things had changed. I just started a little earlier because they were both doing other things. Sara was an insurance executive and Sue was doing screen-plays and they hadn’t really had the time to focus yet, but I am sure they were thinking of it. We talked about the irony of this whole thing bursting forth in such a short time.”
More or less interspersed with the early McCone novels, Muller started writing two other series. One featured part-time sleuth Elena Oliverez, the other security-system specialist Joanna Stark. Both protagonists have an art-related background, Elena being a museum curator, and Joanna assessing security-systems for galleries and museums. Why is it that the author only wrote three novels featuring each character? “The Joanna Stark series was intended to only last the three books with the personal story wrapped up in the last one. With the Oliverez books I really burned out on the character. She was very young and I couldn’t find anything more to say about her, so I ended that deliberately. They were largely written out of financial necessity because publishers were not paying that much for mystery novels at the time. It was not really enough to live on, but since I had few other recognizable skills, I needed to do more than one book a year to survive. I then moved to Mysterious Press and they were taking me more seriously than the previous publisher. I received a lot more support, so I was able to do the McCone books at greater length and with a more ambitious content.”
Besides the few short western stories Marcia Muller enjoys writing, the author was drawn to crime fiction because of her love of the genre. “Every week I’d hop on the bus and travel to the main branch of the public library, where I’d check out as many mysteries as I could carry.” Muller’s particular favourites were Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald, all of them creators of PI’s from the hard-boiled school.
“I read virtually everything I could find in the library but I kept coming back to the private-eye novel because of the form. The protagonists aren’t quite as hampered by procedure as a police officer is. The private detective seems to me to have a lot of freedom. Always going off to bright places, off into the night, going to solve problems for people.”
When the author is asked to name books she has enjoyed by her female colleagues, she becomes extremely careful. Marcia is close friends with many of them and is worried she might leave someone out. Those she does mention are Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, and Agatha Christie. “Eye of the Storm was very ‘Christie’. It was my attempt to adapt the house-party, the closed controlled structure, where people are trapped with the private eye. I had everybody on an island in the Sacramento Delta, where the levies are breaking, and they are being inundated by a storm. They are trapped and one of the people present is the killer. I am not sure how successful I was, but it was a lot of fun trying to do it.” Of her contemporaries, the author admits to being influenced by the police procedurals of Dorothy Unack and Lillian O’Donnel, written in the early seventies.
Marcia Muller feels that people are getting desensitized to violence and tries to show the effect it has on victims, the families of the victims, and how it influences McCone. “She came close to killing at the end of The Shape of Dread when she had someone right in the sight of her gun and really wanted to blow the person away but didn’t. If Sharon inflicts violence on someone because she has to in the course of her work, she has to acknowledge that it is not a good thing and that it disturbs her. There was a real change around the time of The Shape of Dread, that’s when the books start getting a little darker. Sharon starts becoming more introspective and seeing the darker side of her own character, seeing the potential for violence that lurks in all of us.”
Regardless of her strong convictions the author does not feel she can use her novels to further certain political agendas. “I think you can explore issues and perhaps, while you are entertaining your reader, you can get the person to think about this, but if you are only using the novel to further some political point it’s not entertainment, you’re not telling a story. The first and foremost job of a crime writer is to tell a story. If you don’t do that, forget it.”
This doesn’t mean that Muller is restricted in tackling issues, on the contrary. “That’s the thing with contemporary crime fiction and the way the characters develop – readers aren’t reading about a static character who stays the same age, or who stays the same inside. The protagonists in the new mysteries tend to grow and change, they age, and it allows the writers to explore a lot of fascinating topics that weren’t possible before.”
Naturally this means Sharon McCone has developed as well. “The modern crime novels tend to be about people who just happen to be involved in crime, but they are fully developed characters and they have lives outside the immediate case they are working on. Sharon McCone has a mother, a very problematical father, her siblings are terrible, and she has a lot of difficulty with them. She has a lot of difficulty with her house, her cats. Little details, that is what life is made up of. Without them, Sharon would not be a real person. The novels get progressively more complicated. Not in the sense of the plot so much, but more in the depth of characterization. It’s reflective of how the way things are in real life, and I think that’s possibly why there has been such a terrific response to the new kind of mystery, because readers are recognizing themselves in it and identify more deeply that way.”
Though best known for her novels, Muller has written numerous short stories. Which writing form does the author prefer? “Every now and then someone asks me to do a short story and, if it is an interesting enough project, I will do it, but it is so difficult. They have to be so tightly structured and so well thought out, it’s much harder to do for me than to just sit down and write a novel.”
All of the McCone stories have been collected for The McCone Files. The idea came from Crippen & Landru, a small publishing house in Virginia. Muller wrote two new stories especially for the collection. “They were tremendous fun to do because it covers the period from when she was hired to the day that …. well, certain things happen. I’ve had to go back to the beginning and I wrote an original story showing her going to the co-op and sitting down with Hank and actually being hired for the job. Then I wrote another short story where she solves the case, she starts in the first one many years earlier. It was a very strange feeling to have to go back.”
Mick, Sharon’s nephew and a computer expert, was first introduced in one of the short stories (Silent Night) and has since become a fixed character in the novels. This is one of the two things that are particularly noticeable about Marcia Muller’s books: supporting characters are not necessarily discarded at the end of the stories or novels in which they have been introduced. The reason for this is because the author likes to keep some of the players going. “Mick is going to be around for a long time, he developed very nicely. Some of the characters just ask to come back. What I do with the supporting characters is in one book someone may figure very prominently and less so in another so I can keep a large cast alive. In fact when Sharon leaves the All Souls co-op environment, the people are still going to be in the books.”
The second thing special to Muller’s books is that she often makes an unobtrusive reference to the time lapsed since the previous novel, allowing readers the opportunity to build a time-frame through McCone’s cases. When asked if she does this intentionally the author says “I like to think of the books as a kind of ongoing biography of a woman who is engaged in investigation. I strive for something that approximates reality, though it never does. If you really looked at the books, you’d see that the earthquake, the big San Francisco earthquake of 1989 is taking place, and then she is doing something in ‘92, and it’s the same year. So I just hope the reader can forgive that kind of compression of time because Sharon McCone can’t age as fast as I do. She wouldn’t be able to do the things she does.”
The way the Marcia talks about Sharon makes it appear her protagonist actually exists. Muller acknowledges that McCone is very real to her, but stresses that “I keep her firmly in place.”
The opposite appears to be the case when the author plots her novels. “I plan my books very little. It starts with a situation, a character, or something that is really interesting to me, or something that is annoying me at the time, and I may have an idea of how it is going to end. I just develop some characters and situations and hurl them on the paper and just see how they are interacting, see where they are going. The plot-line is totally, totally loose. The early books I plotted a lot more tightly because I was really insecure. Ideas suggest themselves in a given session at the typewriter, or over the period of a couple of days. Then I’ll have the ideas for maybe two more chapters and then more things will come up. It just sort of tumbles together.”
If, as the author says, the plot “just sort of tumbles together”, how does she know what research to do? “In actual writing it takes about nine months to a year for me to complete a book. The research I generally start while I finish off the prior book. That can go on for anything from three or four months. I do a lot of collecting of material, but not reading it until I get closer. For the book I am working on now I have done a lot of research on the recording industry. Some of that I am using, some of it is not essential, but I’ve learnt a lot about the recording industry.”
Just before the interview ends the author discusses her future plans. It turns out that the entire series of McCone books are under option to a Canadian television production company. Since Muller is not a person who is familiar with actors, she has no idea who she would want to play Sharon. On her involvement with the project the author says “I have no idea what they are doing because our agreement was that they would tell me when something happened. The McCone books are all I really want to do at this point. Ideas for the novels have never been a problem, they are just lying around waiting to be used.”
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1995.