April 02, 2013

BOOKS: The Bughouse Affair, Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini (2012)

Muller and Pronzini are surely the most successful husband-and-wife team working in the mystery genre. Each has a long-running series character -- Muller's Sharon McCone, Pronzini's Nameless Detective -- and each has received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. This collaboration is the first volume in a projected new series.

Our heroes are former Secret Service agent John Quincannon and former Pinkerton employee Sabina Carpenter, who work together as private investigators in 1980s San Francisco. As the novel begins, they're working on separate cases. Sabina is trying to identify and locate a female pickpocket who's been striking local amusement parks; John is trying to solve a string of home burglaries. It will, I suspect, surprise no one that the two cases are more closely connected than they originally seem.

The novel's most interesting supporting character is an eccentric Englishman who claims to be Sherlock Holmes, and who involves himself as an unwanted assistant in the firm's investigation. He's an amusing accent for one story; I don't think it would work, though, to make him a regular character, as seems to be threatened at the end of the story.

The historical setting is less interesting than I'd hoped, and it's notable mostly for making me feel that Muller and Pronzini had spent a lot of time researching criminal terminology of the era (or maybe they just went to a Ricky Jay show), and were determined to show off every last bit of it. The endless references to dips and cutpurses and yeggs and scruffs grow tiring after a while.

I was also distracted by the disparity in how the characters are identified. Chapters are titled according to the point-of-view character, either "Sabina" or "Quincannon," and it's not clear why it's first name for her and the more formal, respectful last name for him.

The story itself is moderately entertaining, but not up to the level I've come to expect from Muller (I'm less familiar with Pronzini's work). Pleasant enough book, but not so strong that I'm likely to seek out further installments in the series.

No comments: