Friday’s Forgotten Books: Edwin of the Iron Shoes by Marcia Muller

Marcia Muller released her 35th book about Sharon McCone in 2018. Sharon is one of the earliest contemporary female private investigators I could find. Of course there was Miss Silver who first appeared in the late 1920s and Honey West, who was a caricature of a PI in the 1960s. But as far as modern realistic attempts to portray a woman earning a living as a private detective, the first seems to have been Cordelia Gray, introduced by P.D. James in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in 1972. Then came Sharon’s appearance five years later in 1977, followed by Delilah West in 1980 and Maggie Elliot in 1981. The iconic V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone both saw the light of day in 1982. Shortly afterwards the floodgates opened and readers had any number of women PIs to choose from, including taxi-driving Carlotta Carlyle and bartending Kat Colorado. Sadly enough, of the early arrivals only V.I. and Sharon are still around.

Sharon’s first case was Edwin of the Iron Shoes (David McKay, 1977). We learn right away that Sharon is the investigator for All Souls Cooperative, a legal plan for lower incomes in San Francisco, and her boss has called her to come to a small commercial strip that had been consulting with the cooperative over a series of vandalism events. This time one of the shop owners has been murdered. The police detective in charge does not want Sharon getting in his way so she uses the firm’s need to inventory the store for the owner’s estate as a reason for her to be on-site and to ask questions.

There are a number of things that don’t add up, such as how this particular shop appeared to be prosperous when the other stores on the street are barely getting by. A couple of break-ins while Sharon is in the store alone at night are frightening and tell her that there’s something valuable still there. Sharon doesn’t know enough about antiques to be able to tell what it is and she doesn’t trust the other dealers in the neighborhood enough to consult with them.

A story that is very much of its time and place. The partners in All Souls are the protestors of the 1960s grown up but still determined to make the world a better place. Computers had yet to commandeer the world. Apple meant the fruit in a lunch box and windows were holes in walls. Telephones stayed in one place, tethered by a cord. In many ways this book is historical fiction. Technology aside, the mystery is solidly plotted and solved. Along the way, key characters in this long-running series are introduced and their personalities begin to take shape, foreshadowing later stories. A good reminder of how this enduring series started. 

Friday’s Forgotten Books: Blood Type by Stephen Greenleaf

Stephen Greenleaf published 14 private investigator mysteries between 1979 and 2000. Each book focuses on a social issue: Southern Cross talked about the Civil Rights movement and Strawberry Sunday is engrossed with migrant farm labor. His protagonist John Marshall Tanner, who lived and mostly worked in San Francisco, is thoughtful and literate, with the usual inability to commit to a long-term relationship. The series was critically well regarded but never achieved significant financial success, and Greenleaf wrapped it up with book 14. Ed Lynskey wrote an excellent essay that summarized each of the 14 books and included an interview he’d conducted with Greenleaf by email. See it on Mystery File.com, http://www.mysteryfile.com/Greenleaf/greenleaf.html

In Blood Type (William & Morrow, 1992), #8 in the series, Tanner drops into his favorite watering hole, an unobtrusive bar that allows some of the regulars to congregate in a back room. His friend Tom Crandall is often there, reading, but this particular night Tom has something on his mind. The two generally do not share the details of their personal lives but Tom confides in Tanner that a well-known business man is in the process of stealing Tom’s wife. He wants Tanner’s advice on what his legal options are; Tanner is sorry to tell him that there really aren’t any. A week after this upsetting discussion Tanner finds Tom’s obituary in the newspaper.

The police aren’t sure how Tom died and want to write the death off as suicide so Tanner sets out to learn more. He interviews Tom’s widow, his mother, his work partner, and others, acquiring much more insight into Tom’s life, as well as more about the medical clinics and plasma banks in the low-rent areas of San Francisco where Tom found himself much of the time. This section of the book provides a worrying view of the way blood banks collected their product then. Subsequently, fortunately, practices have been upgraded.

Much of the story describes the steps of the investigation and Tanner’s thought processes, it is not fast-moving, no car chases or shootouts to speak of, although Tanner finds himself in danger more than once. Some readers will find it too leisurely in its pace. I consistently find his introspectiveness and social conscience appealing. I highly recommend these books to readers of private investigator series.