Review

The Bughouse Affair: A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery

by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

Mystery writer Marcia Muller and her husband, prolific author Bill Pronzini, have written the first of a new series of historical mysteries featuring an exciting crime-solving duo (created by Pronzini himself) who operate together out of a large office in downtown San Francisco. Sabina Carpenter is a former Pinkerton operative, one of the handful of women known as "Pink Roses," and John Quincannon is a veteran of the United States Secret Service. The year is 1894, and women, even those with Sabina’s pluck and well-recognized skills, find it difficult to go into business --- at least a legitimate one --- on their own. Sabina and Quincannon's relationship is strictly professional, and seldom do they work together on cases. 

"Mystery writer Marcia Muller and her husband, prolific author Bill Pronzini, has written the first of a new series of historical mysteries featuring an exciting crime-solving duo (created by Pronzini himself)... With their exquisite eyes for detail and intimate knowledge of the City by the Bay, Muller and Pronzini invoke the sights and sounds, the very atmosphere of what San Francisco must have been like during the Victorian era in the late 1890s."

In this opening installment, Sabina is hot on the trail of a female pickpocket who uses her wiles to lift valuable objects from the gullible men in the wild and unruly San Francisco entertainment district. Meanwhile, Quincannon has been retained by an insurance company to catch the burglar who has been robbing the homes of the city's wealthy. When stolen articles Sabina is tracking from the pickpocket are recovered during a burglary at the home of one of the city’s most prominent citizens, their professional lives cross.

Quincannon finds himself chasing the suspected burglar onto the Russian Hill property of a wealthy family who is throwing a small house party. Among the guests is a man who claims to be Sherlock Holmes, and the two meet when Quincannon is mistaken for an intruder. Largely a British phenomenon, Sherlock Holmes is relatively unknown to San Franciscans. His bold introduction does not immediately alert his hosts that he bears the same name as the late, fictitious British detective. Had they been up on their reading, they would know that he had vanished a few years earlier over a waterfall, locked in mortal combat with his nemesis, the evil Professor Moriarty.

Quincannon is immediately suspicious, being a bit more worldly than his wealthy but untraveled clientele, and considers the man to be crazy, lying or both. Yet the crazed imposter who insists on being called Mr. Holmes steps unbidden into the investigation surrounding the stolen goods and the burglary, an event that soon becomes murder. The “bughouse” Holmes has assumed the mannerisms, wearing apparel and, above all, keen observational skills of Sherlock Holmes. He offers them his help, and when they decline, he takes it upon himself to dig into the evidence and obstinately show up at Sabina and Quincannon's office. He reports to work, as it were, infuriating them both. And what’s worse, he turns out to be right. Wasn’t he a creature of fiction, invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Or was he?

With their exquisite eyes for detail and intimate knowledge of the City by the Bay, Muller and Pronzini invoke the sights and sounds, the very atmosphere of what San Francisco must have been like during the Victorian era in the late 1890s. The gambling houses, brothels, loathsome pawn shop owners and thieves are straight out of Dickens. Carpenter and Quincannon’s business takes them to every part of San Francisco --- the seedy side of the city as well as Nob Hill. 

THE BUGHOUSE AFFAIR promises to become a series, or rather a continuation of a collaboration from the late 1980s. The co-authors continue to publish mysteries on their own --- Muller created the bestselling Sharon McCone series and Pronzini the popular Nameless Detective books --- but have joyously rejoined their finely honed writing skills to resurrect these two fascinating characters from the past. 

Fortunately for posterity, although almost entirely destroyed by the great earthquake and fire of 1906, San Francisco was rebuilt in the same configuration of narrow streets and ornate buildings. Street names and building locations were retained, including many of the magnificent mansions. Muller and Pronzini have brought that San Francisco back to life --- the famous madams, gambling houses, restaurants and hotels, and prominent scandals among the swells and the yeggs. The book is liberally sprinkled with phrases and descriptions of the era, lending an aura of authenticity as Sabina and Quincannon, and the mysterious Mr. Holmes, search for truth and justice.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 10, 2013

The Bughouse Affair: A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery
by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini