Dead Midnight by Marcia Muller (2002)
Six-Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to the "Worst" in Western Fiction by Bill Pronzini (1997)
Marcia Muller, a MWA Grand Master and recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, has sometimes been called the mother of the modern female private detective novel. Her most famous creation, Sharon McCone, first appeared in 1977's Edward of the Iron Shoes, five years before Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone and Sara Prestsky's V. I. Warshawski. (And, yes, G. G. Fickling's Honey West had ended her entire career of eleven novels the year before Sharon McCone came on the scene, but Honey was never a "modern" private eye -- just an often unclothed one.)
Besides the thirty-three books (thus far) in the McCone series (including one short story collection), Muller has given us three books about art security expert Joanna Stark, three books about museum director Elena Oliverez, four books (with a fifth coming out next month) about 1890's detectives Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon (co-written with husband Bill Pronzini), three books in a loosely-knit series about the fictional Soledad County, one stand-alone novel, and six collections. With Pronzini, she has edited eleven themed anthologies and the highly regarded 1001 Midnights, a massive exploration of the mystery field.
I met her once, many years ago, at a book signing. She was personable, intelligent, and witty -- everything one would want a favorite author to be. She showed very good taste when she mentioned that she had read most of her husband's book but she absolutely refused to read one titled Duel at Gold Buttes. More on that book later. (Full disclosure: I read the book and enjoyed it -- a fact that says more about me than it does the book.)
Somewhere along the line I fell way behind in Muller's books (something I will definitely correct), so I came fresh onto Dead Midnight, the 22nd book in the Sharon McCone series. When the series began, McCone was an investigator for San Francisco's All Souls Legal Cooperative. Over the years she struck out on her own and now is the owner of a successful detective agency. Her past history of romances with ill-fitting men has ended and she is now in a long-term relationship with a prominent security expert. Her family has expanded with the discovery that she was adopted and now includes a passel of half siblings and parents of one type or another. Her close friends and associates have formed relationships with each other to the point where it seems that once you know Sharon you are fated to have an affair with someone else who knows Sharon. Throughout all this, Sharon doggedly holds onto a dedication to the truth despite the occasional danger that comes with it.
When Dead Midnight opens, Sharon is reeling from the suicide of her brother Joey. A sense of guilt has control of her thoughts. Her first reaction, then, when asked to take on a case involving the suicide of a young Japanese-American man is to refuse. Eventually, Sharon's dedication to the truth wins out and she takes the case. Roger Nagasawa, a twenty-six-year-old underachiever, was a staffer at InSite, a trendy online regional magazine. The working conditions at the magazine were brutal: low pay, long hours, broken promises, physical and emotional abuse. In Japan, there is phenomena called karoshi, literally dying from overwork. Recently, in a first of its kind, a large Tokyo company lost a lawsuit from the family of one victim. Roger's family felt that he was a victim of karoshi and wanted to sue InSite for being liable in their son's death. Sharon was asked to document the case.
Things at In-Site were more than they seemed. Soon Sharon is embroiled in a high-stakes game of corporate greed, sabotage, and murder, all the while trying to come to grips with her brother's death. At the same time there's turmoil in her office as a lover's spat affects its normally smooth operation.
Dead Midnight is a quick and interesting look into a workplace from Hell, with a cast of characters who each have their own agenda.
Bill Pronzini is also a MWA Grand Master, making him and Marcia Muller the only living husband and wife to have that honor. (Margaret Millar and Ross MacDonald were the only other couple to be so honored.) Pronzini also has received the PWA Lifetime Achievment Award. He is best known for his Nameless Detective series, with some 45 books and counting. Nameless (who we eventually learned has the first name "Bill" and an Italian-sounding last name) is in his forties when we first meet him -- overweight, chain-smoking, somewhat morose, and a collector of pulp fiction magazines. Over the years, he has lost the weight, quit smoking due to a cancer scare, has had a relationship sour, has had a partnership sour, has been shackled and left to die, has met his true love, has turned his one-man agency into a successful enterprise with a savvy, young, and high-tech partner, has adopted a teen-age daughter, and is contemplating retirement but has not found the will to cut the cord. Nameless remains one of the most likable and influential private detectives in fiction. The stories are well-written, varied, and often ingenious. You can't go wrong with a Nameless Detective story.
In addition, Pronzini has published more than 83 other novels and collections (at least, I've counted 83; I know there are more) under his own name and as "Jack Foxx," "Alex Saxon," "William Jeffrey," "Robert Hart Davis" (a house name), "William Davis," "Roger Grayson," "Peter Jenson," "Ashton Marlowe," "Richard Mountbatten," "Grant Roberts," "Mark Townsend," "R. Van Dorne," "Elizabeth Watson," and "Agnes Williams."* A number of those names were collaborations with Jeffrey Wallman, including "William Jeffrey," under whose by-line Duel at Gold Buttes appeared. Pronzini has also authored more than three hundred short stories, some under some of the pseudonyms listed above and a few under the house name of "Rohmer Zane Grey." As an editor, he has published well over 90 anthologies, mostly in the mystery and western fields, and co-edited 1001 Midnights with his wife.
He has a distinct fondness for "alternative" classics, poorly written and over written genre books that were often published by lending-library publishers in the 30s, 40s, and 50s -- the B movies of genre literature. As with B movies (and train wrecks), these books have a distinct fascination all their own. Pronzini channeled that love into two books about the mystery field: Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to the Worst in Mystery Fiction (1982) and Son of Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to More of the "Worst" in Mystery Fiction (1987), which included examples from such "alternative" writers as Harry Stephen Keeler, Sidney Horler, Amelia Reynolds Long, James Corbett, and Michael Avallone, as well as more traditional writers as Gladys Mitchell and the (non-Davis Dresser pseudonymous) Brett Halliday. Highly recommended books, both.
But something was missing. Pronzini was a great fan of the western, and surely there are some choice "alternative" western (a.k.a, bang bang horse opera) goodies out there. Of course there are and it took a few years of coaxing from Crossover Press honchos Bruce Taylor and Steve Stilwell to convince Pronzini to find the time to write Six-Gun in Cheek: an Affectionate Guide to the "Worst" in Western Fiction. This "plethora of flapdoodle" (as Pronzini calls it) was published in 1997, giving all lovers of true literature a chance to celebrate.
Let's have a small taste of the alternative western. This is the back jacket copy from George C. Henderson's greatly titled Whizz Fargo, Gunfighter:
Whizz Fargo, a two-gun, fighting waddy, sees three men slain before his eyes -- one by Ed Slocum's desperadoes, one by the armed vigilante band know as the Black Sombreros. The third dead man is the father of Caroliner Dermody. whose lips are red as gunfire and whose eyes are blue as the desert sky.
Wow. Later in Six-Gun in Cheek, Pronzini mentions Henderson's 1936 short story "Quick-Finger Luck" which boasts the most evil-sounding villain's name ever -- Viper Snarl! You have to love anyone who names a villain Viper Snarl.**
George C. Henderson is just the tip of the iceberg. Pronzini covers other great and near-great writer such as Ed Earl Repp (although it's hard to say how many stories published under his name were actually written by him), Archie Jocelyn, Tom Roan, Chuck Martin, and Walter A. Tomkins, and many others. There's Saul Anthony, a pseudonymous author of one story that Pronzini calls "wonderfully bad" and of a "short novel" that Pronzini categorizes as "a howling blue-whistler."
Pronzini also takes to task a story from the Leo Margulies revival of Zane Grey Western Magazine, "The Raid at Three Rapids," featuring Arizona Ames, who immediately accepts an assignment to work undercover from the Arizona Territorial governor. "[H]e didn't have to know the reason; it was sufficient that he had been asked. His nickname, after all, was Arizona." In the story, Ames faces a nightrider posing as a ghost:
There, framed in the doorway, was a hideous, grinning specter. A glowing skeleton, topped by a death's head with fire brand sockets for eyes, its fleshless mouth ripped back in a wild, demonically fiendish grin.
And from the depths of whatever hell had spawned the rose rose a hollow, chilling laugh that curdled the marrow.
It's almost as if the authors were in a contest for the most purple prose. The authors by the way were Pronzini and Jeff Wallman, hiding behind the Rohmer Zane Grey house name.
Speaking of Pronzini and Wallman, remember Duel at Gold Buttes? Here's a sample:
She came over to the bed, looking fine and sweet in a calico dress with her auburn hair fluffed out over hershoulder, and sat beside him. He reached out, took her hand, held it tightly in his own big calloused one. There were no words between them and none needed. Her eyes told him everything he needed to know, and her lips confirmed it seconds later.
There would be no more fiddlefoot drifting for Jim Glencannon, no more lonely nights beside a string of long and lonely trails. He knew at last what it is he wanted, what he had always wanted deep down inside. And now that he had it, he was never going to let it go.
Laurie's hand would remain clasped in his for the rest of their days.
I suspect those clasping hands might get in the way some time in the future, but no matter. It was a happy -- albeit totally unrealistic -- ending. But it's not the ending of Pronzini's exploration of bad western writing. The book is chock full of delights, presented as only someone who loves westerns -- both good and bad -- could.
This one, and the two Gun in Cheek books, could not come more highly recommended.
For more reviews of books by Marcia Muller and/or Bill Pronzini, check out pattinase.com where our fearless leader will have links to these reviews and others.
* A number of these are pseudonyms used for softcore paperback novels that Pronzini wrote early in his career, from 1968-1970. The first book published under his own name was The Stalker, a 1971 mystery, shortly before the first Nameless Detective book.
**I am definitely going to adopt Viper Snarl as my new patronus.