Review

The Spook Lights Affair: A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery

by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

When award-winning mystery writers Marcia Muller (the Sharon McCone series) and Bill Pronzini (creator of The Nameless Detective and a compendium of short stories) put their collective talents together as husband and wife to create a new series, it was heralded as a return to the Nick and Nora series of another generation. 

Muller, holder of a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, made her reputation through the offbeat female San Francisco private investigator Sharon McCone. An important part of that series is her portrayal of her beloved city during the post-Beat generation as a central character, which proves to be almost as important to the story as her heroine. Pronzini, also a recipient of an MWA Grand Master Award, makes this husband-and-wife writing team one of only two living, married couples to be so honored. 

Thus the creation of two new characters: Sabina Carpenter, a widow and former Pinkerton operative, and the curmudgeonly John Quincannon, a flawed but honorable former Secret Service agent. The two formed Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, located in the heart of 1890s San Francisco. Muller’s love for and knowledge of San Francisco’s glorious and notorious past, before fire and earthquake forever changed its face, becomes more than a scenic backdrop to the two crimes the pair are individually pursuing. 

"Muller and Pronzini write alternating chapters as Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon in two discernibly different voices, a device that adds to the originality of the work."

Sabina has been hired to keep an eye on a spoiled young debutant, the headstrong daughter of a prominent Nob Hill industrialist. During a debutant ball, the girl slips off into a foggy night with Sabina in hot pursuit, only to watch the girl climb to the top of a wall and leap off a cliff before she can be stopped. The act is ruled a suicide, but when no body is found, Sabina continues her investigation, despite being dismissed and threatened with a lawsuit by the grief-stricken parents.   

Quincannon is hot on the trail of a Wells, Fargo robbery with a substantial reward being offered for finding the thieves and the money. When one of the suspects is murdered, the stakes are raised. 

Muller and Pronzini write alternating chapters as Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon in two discernibly different voices, a device that adds to the originality of the work. A third character, the supposedly late Sherlock Holmes, pops up with fiendishly accurate deductions that fail to impress Quincannon, who writes off the elusive “crackbrain” Holmes as a nutcase. Sabina is equally annoyed and impressed by this probable imposter as he applies his deductive reasoning. While she finds his cover story of hiding out in San Francisco after reportedly dying in the world-famous leap from the falls in pursuit of the evil Moriarity as fantastical, she listens when Holmes makes a sudden brief re-appearance and tips them off that the two crimes are related. The pair shifts the focus of their investigations and shares notes to connect the players.

Muller’s talent for sense of place fills the pages with an historic and eerie backdrop for the two detectives as they use horse and carriage, trolleys and shoe leather to traverse the dark streets, sand dunes and hazardous cliffs. They visit famous casinos, houses of ill repute, abandoned train cars, and historic office buildings, such as the still-standing Montgomery Building, a lone survivor of the Great Fire and Earthquake. The well-researched historical facts serve as a colorful guidebook to Victorian San Francisco.

I would have liked to have seen more of the mysterious Holmes, who played a much larger role in THE BUGHOUSE AFFAIR. His brief appearance here left me looking for him to lighten the story, but alas, he has again faded into the fog banks of history.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on December 7, 2013

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