EDWIN OF THE IRON SHOES (1977) by Marcia Muller

Muller_Edwin-of-the-Iron-Shoes_womenspressThis was the first in the Sharon McCone series that so far has spawned 33 volumes. As debuts go this is a fairly traditional one but historically it remains a very important work as it is generally held to have established the female private eye in contemporary crime literature, certainly paving the way for the likes of Sara Peretsky’s VI Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.

“Damned fine woman. Ought to have been a man”

I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“My attention went immediately to the chalk outline on the floor near the ancient cash register. It was not a very big outline: Joan Albittron had been a tiny woman.”

McCone is the staff investigator at the All Souls Cooperative and begins her first published case in the middle of the night with the discovery of a corpse in an antique shop. The shop belonged to the victim, Joan Albittron, who also owned some of the other real-estate on the street, which is currently in the process of being out under offer from several parties who want to develop the land. These include the powerful, self-made tycoon Cara Ingalls and shady bail bondsman Ben Harmon. But would that really be enough of a reason to bump off a little old lady who was so widely liked? And is the death linked to the spate of attacks the previous yea on the shops in the street, and which McCone had previously investigated (with little success)?

“I don’t like being badgered by little girls playing detective”

Muller_Edwin-of-the-Iron-Shoes_mysteriouspressMcCone, in time-honoured PI fashioned, immediately gets on the wrong side of the lead cop, Greg Marcus (he calles her ‘pappoose’ as she is one eighth Shoshone). She is ostensibly placed to complete an inventory of Albittron’s shop (that includes the eponymous statuette) but she is just itching to investigate the murder and is ultimately given three day’s grace to get it done or get out of Marcus’ hair. Things are slightly complicated by the fact that she is clearly attracted to him and by continuing problems on the street. The shop gets broken into several times and one of the other shops even gets set on fire – is there something of value hidden there? This seems unlikely as most of the stock was pretty cheap stuff that only attracted gullible tourists – is there perhaps a drug connection (her nephew died recently from an OD)?

“… I had an unreal feeling I might step off the edge of the world at any minute”

Muller_Edwin-of-the-Iron-Shoes_penguinMcCone’s investigation eventually turns up a smuggling ring and includes a creepy chase through the fog – well, what kind of self-respecting San Francisco mystery would this be without one, right? There are also a couple more murders to be solved – but not before McCone and Marcus start to get much more friendly (which is certainly refreshing as its hardly what usually happens in hardboiled detective stories) – but can he be trusted?. McCone has to put up with a fair amount of sexist crap, which I suppose was to be expected in the unenlightened yesteryear of 1977. She is very much her own woman, but also pretty young and inexperienced (she keeps forgetting to eat her meals). As a callow youth she is unfortunately also prone to falling in with the most standard clichés of PI patois in her first person narration, which dates the book very much in the wrong way:

“The pieces of my theory about the murder were falling into place”

The plot is fairly straightforward and the list of suspects is not large, so one can’t expect a big surprise villain. Instead what we get is a serviceable plot that’s solidly constructed and a new type of private detective in McCone, who makes for an agreeable heroine who is always pleasingly plausible and far from perfect. I look forward to reading a lot more of her later cases as the critical consensus ‘out there’ seems to be that the books have grown in ambition since this modest introductory story.

TomCat posted a great review of this book just the other day over at Beneath the Stains of Time; and if you want to learn more about her and her author, visit the official website at: http://marciamuller.com/

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘professional detective’ category:

vintage-silver-marked-card-18mm

 

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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30 Responses to EDWIN OF THE IRON SHOES (1977) by Marcia Muller

  1. Sergio – As ever, a thoughtful and detailed review, for which thanks. I always give credit to Muller for creating one of the first modern-day female PI characters. Perhaps I’m not seeing things clearly, but it seems to me that that paved the way for many other female fictional PIs who came later. And as you say, the plot is solidly constructed and clear.

    • Thanks Margot – Muller definitely got there first byt there was also a big gap between the publication of ht efirst McCone mystery and the next and I think Peretsky mor or less got there in the interim.

  2. Kelly says:

    Love the way you drizzled the quotes throughout the review. Very entertaining. I don’t read nearly enough mysteries by women, and even fewer with female main characters.

  3. Todd Mason says:

    I’m not at all sorry to have begun reading the series with TROPHIES AND DEAD THINGS in 1990, written in response to the deaths of Abbie Hoffman and Huey Newton in relatively rapid succession, and the reassessment of their first prominent era (and Muller’s, and McCone’s) which those events (and their analogs in the novel) spark. She’s done nearly as well several times since and once or twice before, but that was an excellent introduction…much better than my actual introduction to Muller in 1994, when she had been invited to read at the Borders bookstore I was working at as office manager, but it was so ineptly arranged by our promotions person that even I as staff wasn’t aware of the visit till an hour or two before it would happen (when the promo person begged me to introduce her, to a mildly interested crowd of five aside from Muller and myself).

    • I do get the impression that the series has become much more ambitious going along and Trophies sounds more substantial – how maddening that they couldn’t organise themselves better – got no respect these non mystery fans :)

  4. westwoodrich says:

    Blimey, never heard of this series, thanks Sergio. I love the title but maybe I’ll look for one of the later titles.

  5. TomCat says:

    Well, we seem to have arrived at pretty much the same conclusion about this book and for the readers who aren’t familiar with the series, I recommend starting with the short story collection The McCone Files. The opening story is McCone’s origin story, but the collection as a whole is excellent and varied.

    Great review and thanks for the mention!

  6. I read this book when it was first published. As the series progressed, I thought the writing and characterizations improved a lot. I really enjoyed the volume with Bill Pronzini’s character joining Muller’s character.

  7. Yvette says:

    “Damned fine woman. Ought to have been a man.” HA! This sounds like something out of Agatha Christie.

    I’ve never read any of the Muller books, Sergio – never being a hard-boiled female detective fan. I’ve tried over the years with different authors but never could get far into any of the books. From a woman’s point of view, I find most of these types a bit off-putting primarily because a lot of the time the women have to act like men to get anything done. That might work once or twice, but on a continuing basis – no, thanks. The kind of female detectives I like simply cannot be copies of Philip Marlowe.

    • No point if the character types are interchangeable Yvette, I totally agree – the impression i get though is that the personal side of the McCone character gets developed a lot as the books move in, which does not happen much in the traditional hardboiled genre (well, not unless you’re Muller’s husband, bill Pronzini, that is …0

  8. John says:

    Hmm… “unenlightened yesteryear of 1977?” I lived in a very different 1977, not completely free of bigotry and prejudice but certainly not at all an “unenlightened yesteryear.” I was disappointed with this book when I read it. Definitely a novice writer’s novel as evidenced by that very awkward sentence about pieces of a theory falling into place. I hear them now: clunk, clunk… I expected EDWIN… to be hardboiled and it doesn’t even vaguely approach soft boiled IMO. The plot reminded me of a Mignon Eberhart book. She ought to get points for her social criticism though. I expect the later books are more mature and better written. I vaguely recall reading one of Muller’s books about her museum curator sleuth — Elena Olivera (I think) — and it had the same feel as EDWIN…

    • Thanks for that John – when I think of 1977, a year I liked in the UK, in my memory at least it feels like it could just as easily been 1957 so little had changed, especially in relation to assumptions about women at home and in the workplace – I didn’t get to San Francisco until 1988, by which time things seemed very different.

  9. Richard says:

    I’ve read all of hers except the last couple, which I haven’t gotten to yet. They get better as the series continues, especially over the last dozen or so, but there is a lot of major character development in the earlier books, and I think they are all worth reading. This is probably the weakest of the lot.

  10. Sergio, thanks for this review and introducing me to Marcia Muller and her fiction. Like Kelly, I liked the quotes too, which, I think, owes its element of humour as I see it to the first-person narrative. Sharon McCone sounds like a solid protagonist in a kind of girl-next-door way.

  11. Bev Hankins says:

    Thanks for this, Sergio. I haven’t tried any of the McCone series. Not entirely sure that I’ll ever get to it. I had a fling with the Sue Grafton alphabet back when she was a lot closer to “A”–but like Yvette, I’ve never really gotten into the hardboiled female detective (shoot, I’m not all that fond of the male hard-boiled…). I’m afraid there are too many on my must-read TBR list to get to these, but who knows maybe I’ll choose one for an “out of my comfort zone” read one of these days.

  12. TracyK says:

    I have read this book and my response was tepid. Yet I felt there must be more to the series since it has continued for so long. I have a few more in this series and I will try more of them. I have read about half of the Pronzini series and need to get back to those also.

  13. Sarah says:

    Completely agree, Sergio. While ‘Edwin’ is considered a classic I think the stories get better before, in my opnion, they get worse. However Marcia Muller introduced a type of detective that was an inspiration when I was reading these books as a teenager.

    • Thanks Sarah – I plan to read more, so where would you say the series peaked?

      • Sarah says:

        Hi – I’d say in the mid 1990s. ‘Till the Butchers Cut Him Down’, ‘The Broken Promise Land’ etc. These are excellent. The more recent ones I really haven’t taken to (there’s a serious illness followed by an unbelievable recovery).

        • I’d read that the personal narrative dealt with cancer – sorry to hear it doesn’t work as well as it might as it’s a pretty bold idea for a PI series – thanks very much Sarah, really appreciate the info.

          • Sarah says:

            I was thinking of the locked-in syndrome that Sharon seems to make a miraculous recovery from. I’m not sure about cancer but I haven’t read the last couple of books. Too much to read…

          • Sorry about that (darn spoilers – as far as I know McCone’s fight with breast cancer is a major feature of more recent volumes). Thanks again.

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