Someone Always Knows, by Marcia Muller; Feels Phoned-In

Someone Always Knows is the 32nd Sharon McCone mystery, written by Marcia Muller. In addition to the McCone series which started in 1977, Muller has written several other series, including a history-mystery series co-written with her husband Bill Pronzini.

I started reading the McCone books in the 1980s, about the time I started reading Sue Grafton. Like Grafton’s female detective Kinsey Milhone, Sharon McCone was a distinct character. I liked her. I liked her roots and her values. In the first round of books, McCone worked as a legal investigator for All Soul’s Legal Collective, a legal aid office in San Francisco. The stories blended McCone’s investigations with tidbits about her eccentric San Diego-based family. McCone was also a pilot, so several books involved small planes and the details of flying.

I liked them a lot at first. After a while they ceased to be books I was on the lookout for, although when I saw a new one in paperback I would usually buy it. McCone has been investigating things for forty years now. A series can get stale.

I think it got stale for Muller, too, because she began making dramatic change-ups to the series. All Soul’s Collective disbanded and McCone started her own agency. Probably this was supposed to show her as an empowered woman, striking out on her own. Then, several books after that, McCone met and married Hy Ripinsky. Ripinksy was a pilot, an environmental activist, and a man with a shady past that garnered him a ton of political connections and a lot of money. With the marriage, the series definitely changed direction. Ripinksy ran an international security firm and was frequently jetting off to conduct hostage negotiations he couldn’t talk about. In one book, McCone rescues him after he’s been abducted. In the meantime, the parts of the book dealing with McCone’s brother, sister and various in-laws and former in-laws grew to take up more of the books.

About five books ago, McCone nearly died and then spent a book trying to recover from lock-in syndrome, a condition where the patient can make no voluntary movement. I didn’t read that one. I probably should. SPOILER ALERT: In a subsequent book, she fully recovers.

Somewhere midway through the series Muller revealed that everything Sharon McCone thought about herself and her family was untrue and that she was adopted, and (gasp!) half Native American. This contrivance allowed the series to have an investigation that involved tribal peoples. Fortunately for McCone, her Native American father is a rich, famous artist who chooses to live a humble life on the reservation. It’s not because he has to.

I did read The Night Searchers, the volume before this one, and found it a bit thin. Someone Always Knows is about 350 pages, which includes a short story and an excerpt from the next McCone mystery. I didn’t love The Night Searchers, but my sense of disappointment with Someone Always Knows is much, much deeper.

McCone and Ripinsky have merged their businesses, and they live in a multi-million dollar house in San Francisco. Ripinsky has every contact and resource you can imagine, and McCone has no trouble using them. She and Ripinsky are effectively one-percenters now (she drives to a stakeout in her red Mercedes and comments that it’s not a good stakeout car). While living in luxury, tooling around in private planes and expensive cars, McCone mourns the city that is her home, where rents are so high that families are getting pushed out; where her favorite dive bar or greasy spoon have been closed or purchased by developers. She fears it is changing for the worse, while never once stopping to consider that people like her and Ripinsky are part of the reason.

This sense of them being oblivious, privileged fat-cats is exacerbated by a mildly funny subplot about an atrocious sculpture they purchased for the front of their building, and a meaningless feud that McCone has with a far-right blogger. The blogger feud tries to win us over by making the woman be really catty and a right-winger, but the woman has a dinky publication that is being cancelled, and McCone’s attacks on her are clearly punching down. The sculpture is a classic example of what is wrong with McCone and Ripinsky now. They got scammed by a celebrity artist, but why didn’t they reach out to one of SF’s local artists? Why didn’t they give a gifted but poor artist a chance? This is what McCone would have done in the 80s. Now that she has money, it’s a different story.

As for the once-independent, strong, resourceful investigator, McCone now relies nearly entirely on Ripinsky’s resources.

To make that problem even worse, in this book McCone behaves stupidly in order for the plot to function. For example, on page 191 she is given an obvious clue about the identity of a particular character (the dead guy). It’s the name of a book character. After that, several times, she wonders again who the dead guy really was. The penny doesn’t drop for her for at least another sixty pages. She can’t figure out where the bad-guy is, (but we can), and when he gets the drop on her and tells his accomplice to get “the bracelets,” McCone doesn’t know what he means until he comes out with handcuffs. Really? I don’t think so.

As the case has been in several of the recent books, Ripinsky is conveniently off on a top-secret mission during most of this book. Ripinsky seems to exist to give McCone all the power and intell anyone could need; to often bring his seedy past into the present to fuel the plot (which is the case here) to buy her expensive presents and show up for romantic taco-night dinners and good sex. The rest of the time, he’s mostly away. This feels less like a marriage and more like fantasy wish fulfillment.

Apart from jerky and transparent plot manipulation, there is just writing that creates an impression of a draft that was dashed off with little revision. In the first half of the book, first-person narrator McCone recaps that adopted/Native American thing. In the second half of the book, when she goes to visit her brother in San Diego, he makes a snarky reference to tribal people and McCone tells the readers, “He said things like that because I was half Native American.” We know! A writer as good and as experienced as Muller should be able to trust her own words, and her readers, more than that. It’s as if she forget that she told us the whole thing a hundred pages earlier.

I’m not sure this series can be fixed. This book, more than any of the others, felt as if the author was phoning it in. As I said in the first paragraph, Muller is writing other series and other work. She may just be tired. Maybe McCone and Ripinsky could sale around the world on a yacht they acquire, and give themselves and their creator a much-needed rest.

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