Sharon McCone: P.I. On The Pier Of San Francisco Bay

Golden Gate Bridge

hide captionMarcia Muller's long-running Sharon McCone mystery series is set in San Francisco and follows Detective Sharon McCone as she helps clean the city up — one murderer at a time.

shakestercody/Flickr

Marcia Muller is taking a long walk on a short pier under the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.

This is where Sharon McCone — the main character of Muller's mysteries and the first liberated female detective of modern times — runs her own investigative agency.

"That's right," Muller says. "She has her office at the end of the pier in this big arching window so she can look out on the bay."

Pier 28 i i

hide captionSharon McCone's investigative agency is located on fictional Pier 24 1/2, below San Francisco's Bay Bridge — not far from real-life Pier 28.

Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Pier 28

Sharon McCone's investigative agency is located on fictional Pier 24 1/2, below San Francisco's Bay Bridge — not far from real-life Pier 28.

Mandalit del Barco/NPR

Sharon McCone's firm is located on the fictional Pier 24 1/2. To get an idea of what that might be like, we sneak into the real-life Pier 24, a cavernous old wood and steel warehouse. It's got an old salvaged look that's kind of grimy and great.

"It just so lends itself to creepiness," Muller says.

Sharon McCone was once shot here, on the catwalk outside her office. She had left her cell phone in her office, came back for it late at night, and surprised an intruder who then shot her and fled. In Muller's Locked In, the detective lies in a coma-like state as the operatives of her agency look for the assailant.

She recovers, of course, regaining her strength in Muller's latest book, Coming Back. Detective Sharon McCone is tough — but not without heart.

"She is my alter ego," Muller says, "except she is a lot thinner and taller than I am. And she can eat anything she wants to without gaining weight. Her features are very reflective of her Shoshone Indian ancestry."

Not So Cozy

Muller says she likes combing the city for inspiration for Sharon McCone's capers.

"I go along, but I don't pack a gun and I don't walk the mean streets," she says. "You know, I'll stay in the car with the doors locked and send her out."

But Muller's not as timid as she appears. She was nearly arrested once while doing research along the U.S. border with Mexico and — like her protagonist — the 65-year-old author flies airplanes and drives a snazzy sports car.

"She is a hard-boiled writer," says Ed Kaufman, owner of the "M" Is for Mystery bookstore in San Mateo, Calif. He says that until Muller came along, most women mystery authors penned what were often referred to as "cozies."

"There's very little description of brutality," Kaufman explains. "The principal character is somebody like a woman who owns an antique store or who's got a garden."

He says they also avoided cursing or going into grisly details.

"That's why they're called cozies," he says. "Agatha Christie is a perfect example of it. You never heard Hercule Poirot swear."

Muller created Sharon McCone in the late 1970s. Authors Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky later followed, breaking new ground with their own hard-edged private eyes.

"Women in mystery fiction were largely confined to little old lady snoops — amateur sleuths — who are nurses, teachers, whatever," Muller says, adding that there were some exceptions. "Anna Katherine Green wrote about a female inquiry agent, and there were a scattering of female investigators in the 1970s authored by men, who just didn't ring true. So I thought, well, there's an opening here for something."

Not Exactly Noir

Muller says she loves the classic film noirs set in San Francisco, like The Maltese Falcon, but unlike Dashiell Hammett's iconic fedora- and trench coat-wearing detective, Sharon McCone has a life.

"I didn't want her alone with a bottle in a desk drawer," Muller explains.

We're in Bernal Heights, one of the few sunny spots in the city, in front of a lovely Victorian house. Muller says she used this house as the setting for McCone's first job as an investigator for a group of attorneys at All Souls, a law co-op.

"I wanted her to be independent," she says, "but also surrounded by friends, and a place she could go for poker games and all-night talking sessions."

Bernal Heights House i i

hide captionMuller set the beginning of McCone's career in this Bernal Heights house, where McCone worked as an investigator for the fictional law co-op All Souls.

Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Bernal Heights House

Muller set the beginning of McCone's career in this Bernal Heights house, where McCone worked as an investigator for the fictional law co-op All Souls.

Mandalit del Barco/NPR

McCone has a loving husband, and progressive politics that reflect those of San Francisco.

Muller has so completely envisioned the life her characters lead that she's actually built several dollhouse replicas of them — like the miniature home of McCone's best friend and office manager, Ted Smalley.

"It's his little bordello. It has red flocked wallpapering and a very ornate red velvet couch," she says with a laugh. "And in the back is a loft, with curtains he can pull."

Friend and fellow writer Susan Dunlap says the dollhouses reflect Muller's wicked sense of humor.

"It helps her to visualize what's going on with Sharon," Dunlap says. "If you work as hard as Marcia, you need to have a hobby that is not writing — that's not words. It's sort of like Virginia Woolf, who baked bread."

Conspiring A Murder

Over a lasagna lunch at her favorite San Francisco restaurant, The Gold Mirror, Muller talks about collaborating with her husband, fellow mystery novelist Bill Pronzini.

"Sometimes Bill and I will be talking about a plot of one of our books over dinner and suddenly realize that the people at the next table over are staring," she snickers, "because we're talking about murders and dead bodies."

Driving the hilly streets in her sporty BMW two-seater, Muller says that while she's thrilled to be old enough to receive Medicare, she still delights in being able to blow up a park in the marina "just to further the plot" of her novels.

That's when it dawns on me that throughout this pleasant San Francisco day, filled with giggles and polite conversation, Muller and I could have been killed in any number of ways:

That morning we were standing along a trolley line.

"Step onto these tracks," I suggested. "I want to take your picture."

Marcia Muller i i

hide captionIn 2005, author Marcia Muller was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Marcia Muller

In 2005, author Marcia Muller was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

Mandalit del Barco/NPR

She complied, and then proposed to me, "Step back closer to the cliff so I can get a really good photo of you."

We laughed.

After lunch, when Muller's steering wheel locked up, I found myself pushing the front of her car up an extremely steep hill.

Near Golden Gate Park, a speeding police car nearly sideswiped us.

And perched above the treacherous cliffs at San Francisco's China Beach, Muller had trouble getting her gear in reverse. The car kept lurching forward.

We pictured ourselves plunging over the cliffs and crashing onto the rocky beach below.

A perfect device for a mystery, we agreed.

Muller and I were spared this day, but we continued to scheme.

I ask facetiously what Muller's favorite type of murder is, and she plays along.

"Stabbing is nice," she says, grinning. "It's something anyone can do. Everyone has a kitchen knife."

"Have you ever been tempted?" I conspire.

"No," Muller sighs. "I'd get caught. I don't have the nerve for something like that. Also, I don't know anyone I'd really care to murder."

As a mystery writer, though, the amiable Marcia Muller says she plans to knock off enough people to keep her detective Sharon McCone in business for many books to come.

Excerpt: 'Coming Back'

Coming Back
Coming Back
By Marcia Muller
Hardcover, 304 pages
Grand Central Publishing
List price: $24.99

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

JULY–JANUARY

SHARON McCONE

Coming back was the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

First the speech: trying to make coherent words out of the gibberish that spewed from my lips. Like learning English as a second language, only as if I had no first.

"Mescatal," I said to Phoebe Williams, my speech therapist at the Brandt Neurological Institute; I'd been a patient there since I was shot in the head in early July by an intruder at Pier 24½. Phoebe had asked me what abilities I'd normally lacked before I spent two weeks in a coma.

In spite of the scrambled word, she knew what I meant. "Mus-ical." She accented the first syllable, using a long U slowly, showing me how she moved her mouth and tongue.

"Musicattle." At least the first two syllables were right.

"Mus-i-cal."

"Mus-i-kit. Mus-i-cat. Mus-i-cal. Musical!"

It was the tenth word I'd finally gotten right in the past half hour. Now I was tired. Who would have thought that simple speech could be so exhausting?


Regaining motion was another effort entirely: flexing my fingers, toes, and feet. Making them strong and able to do my bidding.

"Can't be my sinature! Like a first-graver's."

"You're doing fine, Sharon. Let's work on signing your name a few more times." Jill Hughes, one of my physical therapists, was annoyingly upbeat.

"You ever a sheerleader?" I asked.

"A what?"

I paused and shaped my mouth to make the word come out right. "Cheerleader."

"What's that got to do with – "

I shook my head and picked up the pen that I'd thrown down on the table. "Try sinning again."

Jill's eyes met mine, and we both started to laugh.


And so it went, until the day when my words made sense, but the voice and inflections didn't sound like my own.

"Better today," I told Phoebe after she'd returned from a long weekend. It was a flat statement that didn't reflect the excitement and hope I felt inside.

"Very good!"

"Been practick . . . practicing those speech exercises you gave me." I demonstrated shaping words with exaggerated mouth and tongue motions. "Nighttime, maybe three hours." I felt as if a stranger were talking through me.

"You've made a lot of progress. Are you ready to work even harder?"

"Yes."

"Then let's get started. Why don't you read me the lead article in the Chronicle ?"

I picked up that morning's newspaper with fingers that no longer fumbled. " 'Yesterday Presh . . . President Barack Obama . . . unequiv-ocally stated . . .'"

The news, at least for today, was good.


I spent hours toning my long unused muscles until I had control over them.

"Let's turn over on our side," Mark Ito, physical therapist, said. From my position on my back on the padded table I stared up at the ceiling and sighed. My breakfast had been oatmeal, which I'd despised since my childhood when my mother insisted I start every day with it. I'd accidentally looked at the bathroom mirror and seen my nearly bald head. A phone call from Elwood Farmer, my birth father who lived on the Flathead Rez in Montana, had annoyed me: he was doing what I thought of as his mystical Indian shtick today, quoting Shoshone proverbs that didn't have much to do with my current problematical situation. I asked him not to try so hard to be a father at this late date — we'd only discovered each other a few years ago — and instead of taking offense, he'd waxed more eloquent and philosophical. I'd hung up on him. Later I would have to mend fences.

Mark Ito repeated, "Let's turn over on our side now."

"Whose side? Yours or mine?"

"Testy today, aren't we?"

"I am. I don't know about you."

"On our side, please." He motioned but refrained from helping me.

I thumped onto my side, feeling as a walrus must. God, was I gaining weight? That would add the final insult to injury!

"That's good," Mark said. "Now let's raise our right knee. . . . Very good. We're doing fine."

"Maybe you are. This hurts."

"Testiness is a sign of healing."


And then there was the walking: a halting step; an assisted journey down the hospital's corridor, clinging to a railing.

"What's this thing around me, Mark? A harness?"

"So you won't fall. I've got you. Grasp the bar on the wall and stabilize yourself. Then take a step with your right foot."

"Not our right foot?"

"I got your message weeks ago: no PT speak. Step, please."

I stepped, teetered some. Mark pulled on the harness to steady me.

"I feel like a toy poodle being taken for a walk."

"One more step."

I took two. "Betcha I can outrun a toy poodle."

"Try two more."

I took three.


Finally I walked slowly on my own down that same corridor.

"Hey, look at you, Shar!" Mark began applauding. "Hey, everybody," he called to others in the hallway, "look at McCone!"

Two orderlies, a nurse, and a patient in a wheelchair joined in Mark's applause.

"Thank you." I made a slight bow. "I'm stepping out."

As I made my way toward the lobby and the bench outside the front door, where my nurse had frequently wheeled me in my chair, my eyes filled with tears of gratitude for all the Institute staff had done for me.

Eventually there was a day in December when I heard myself talking as I always had, and the two halves of my verbal ability became one.

"I've been thinking, Ripinsky," I said to Hy. We were relaxing in front of the kiva-style fireplace in the sitting room at our Church Street house. Home for good, at last.

"About what?"

"I ought to start putting in appearances at the office, if only for the staff meetings." McCone Investigations had been in the hands of my capable employees for nearly five months now, but I missed the day-to-day involvement. "Things're okay, but they need me."

"I thought you weren't going back till after the first of the year. You don't want to overdo it."

"Dammit, Ripinsky, I'm sick of being an invalid! I want my fuckin' life back!"

He grinned widely, white teeth flashing beneath his bushy dark blond mustache. "I'd say you're well on your way, colorful vocabulary and all."


When the Brandt Institute released me from their therapy program they referred me to a rehab center in the Inner Sunset district. It was quite a distance from my house and the pier, but I went six or seven days a week, and gradually I became more and more the person I used to be.

It would be over six months before the state of California would allow me to operate a motor vehicle: people who have had seizures and brain damage must serve a probationary period after recovery. It would be nearly a year or more before an FAA-certified doctor would sign off on my medical status and even longer until I proved my abilities to their examiners and my pilot's license was restored.

But all of that would happen. With hard work and determination I'd come all the way back.

Others, I knew, were not so fortunate.

Excerpted from Coming Back by Marcia Muller. Copyright 2010 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust. Reprinted by permission from Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc. All rights reserved.

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