Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Bay Area Blues

A quadruple-dip today in my erratic pursuit of tasty San Francisco mystery novels:

City of Whispers
A Sharon McCone Mystery
by Marcia Muller, 2011

I’ve covered Marcia Muller’s work here before, her Sharon McCone series of mystery novels is old enough to drink, and I should have had a drink before I started this one.

City is a decade old, a time when smart phones were still a new “thing.” That’s about it as far as any time references are concerned. Sharon’s half-brother, a Native American, needs help and Sharon’s dilemma is two-fold: her relative is in some kind of trouble, trouble that may be related to an unsolved murder of a wealthy heiress a few years prior. He is on the run and Sharon and her cohorts set off a chase throughout SF and other parts of California—even up into Oregon and Canada. The plot is well defined—there aren’t any big surprises—and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. A quick read, and the San Francisco elements are handled well. When the action leaves the bay area it loses some of its appeal. Overall a decent ‘meal’, but not very memorable.

A novel
by Meg Gardiner, 2017

The “Unsub” of the title is an UNknown SUBject, a Zodiac-style killer who has reappeared after 20 years and whose gruesome murders have police stumped. Detective Caitlin Hendrix is the daughter of Mack Hendrix, who was a detective on the still unsolved first cases. This situation creates plenty of tension, and as the book progresses the murder rate increases and the killer’s taunting of the police. There is hardly a moment to spare for Caitlin so, thank goodness, the reader doesn’t have to endure the genre’s seemingly obligatory (and usually gratuitous) sex scenes. The killer’s M.O. includes changing locales to keep the police off-balance as much as possible making the book really  more of a Bay Area rather than a San Francisco novel. The story careens to a climax, leaving the reader with a twist that would seem to indicate further books.

Meg is a hot writer now—this book series has already been optioned for television. I found reading this book is akin to chugging down a big glass of Soylent Green.

Black Karma
A novel
by Thatcher Robinson, 2014

My SF mystery/culinary trip leads to this gritty novel based in San Francisco and the Bay area. Bai Jiang is a female, independently wealthy souxun (“people finder”) who is hired (on commission) to find out why a SFPD drug sting involving Mexican and/or Chinese gangs went wrong. The story is set in the recent past and the dialog is hard-boiled and slangy. Lots of quips and double entendres pepper the spaces between plentiful shootings, stabbings, and beatings. There is also a nice inter-twined sub-plot about Bai’s dating dilemmas; a sub-plot with a teen-aged Mexican prostitute is not as successful. The whole thing does have more than a whiff of cultural appropriation but at least the author is trying to bring some new twists to the P.I. genre.

Like a typical American-Chinese-food dinner, Black Karma left this reader hungry for more.

The Painted Gun
A novel by Bradley Spinelli, 2017

Finally, this mystery-within-a-mystery is a curious dish.

Set in the dawn of the San Francisco Bay-area tech boom some twenty years ago, this has a lot of the tone and mood of a pulp crime novel of the fifties. David “Itchy” Crane is a failed newspaper writer turned private investigator who is down on his luck when an old client (who had stiffed him previously) makes him an offer—$25,000 down, $25,000 upon finding Ashley, an artist who has gone missing. The plot becomes more complex (ridiculous) as paintings of the detective start appearing and shady characters and shootings multiply.

Spinelli is relatively young, but has learned the genre well. Its odd to read a novel set in 1997, when advances in technology were just coming into their own (an 8 megabyte flash drive!) and smart phones are still a decade away. The San Francisco locales are generally good, although the author insists on call the transportation system “the BART” which no self-respecting local would do. The end becomes a history lesson about the production and importation of bananas! The Painted Gun is the literary equivalent of a burrito: full of beans but tasty.

By Professor Batty


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