RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Writer Marcia Muller is credited with creating the first liberated female private detective of the modern era. In the late 1970s, she began writing a series of books following the adventures of private eye Sharon McCone, who solves murders and mysteries in San Francisco.

For the last of our series Crime in the City, NPR's Mandalit del Barco spent a foggy day exploring Marcia Muller's favorite haunts.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

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

Ms. MARCIA MULLER (Crime Novelist): Fog coming in through the Golden Gate in great big sheets. I love San Francisco.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: And this is where your character, Sharon McCone, has her own private detective agency.

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

DEL BARCO: Sharon McCone's agency 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.

Ms. MULLER: Kind of grimy and great in that old salvaged look.

DEL BARCO: Gritty.

Ms. MULLER: I don't know. It just so lends itself to creepiness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: This is the location where Sharon was once shot.

Ms. MULLER: Yes, right up on the catwalk outside her office. She had left her cell phone in her office, came back late at night for it, and surprised someone in her office, who then shot her and fled.

DEL BARCO: Detective Sharon McCone is tough, but not with out heart.

Ms. MULLER: She is my alter ego, 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.

DEL BARCO: Muller says she likes combing the city for Sharon McCone's capers.

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

DEL BARCO: But Muller is not as timid as she appears. She nearly arrested once while doing research along the U.S.-Mexico border. And like her protagonist, the 65-year-old author pilots airplanes and drives a snazzy sports car.

Mr. ED KAUFMAN (Owner, M is for Mystery Bookstore): She is a hard-boiled writer.

DEL BARCO: Ed Kaufman owns the M is for Mystery Bookstore in San Mateo. He says until Marcia Muller came along, most women mystery authors penned what were called cozies.

Ms. KAUFMAN: Meaning there's very little description of brutality, so that's why they're called a cozy. Agatha Christie is a perfect example of it.

DEL BARCO: After Muller created Sharon McCone in the late 1970s, she was joined by authors Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, who also broke new ground with their own hard-edged private eyes.

Ms. MULLER: Women in mystery fiction were largely confined to little old lady snoops, amateur sleuths who are nurses, teachers, whatever. So I thought, well, there's an opening here for something.

(Soundbite of movie theme music, "The Maltese Falcon")

DEL BARCO: 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 detective, Sharon McCone has a life.

Ms. MULLER: I didn't want her alone or, you know, with a bottle in a desk drawer.

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

Ms. MULLER: I wanted her to be independent, but also having a surrounding of friends, a place she could go - poker games, you know, all-night talking sessions.

DEL BARCO: Sharon McCone has a loving husband and progressive politics that reflects San Francisco's. In fact, Muller has so completely envisioned the life her characters lead that she's built several dollhouse replicas for them, like the miniature home of McCone's best friend and office manager, Ted Smalley.

Ms. MULLER: His little bordello. It has flocked red wallpapering and a very ornate red velvet couch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Writer Susan Dunlap says the dollhouses reflect her best friend's wicked sense of humor.

Ms. SUSAN DUNLAP (Writer): If you work as hard as Marcia does, you need to have a hobby that is not writing. It is sort of like Virginia Woolf, who baked bread.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Ms. MULLER: 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 are staring, because we're talking about murders and dead bodies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Driving the hilly streets in her sporty BMW two-seater, Marcia Muller is a paradox. First, she says she's thrilled to be old enough to receive Medicare. Then she still delights in having blown up a park in the marina.

Just for fun?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MULLER: Well, just to further the plot.

DEL BARCO: Then it dawns on me that throughout this pleasant San Francisco day filled with polite conversation and giggles, Marcia Muller and I could easily have been killed. In the morning, we're standing along a trolley line.

Step onto these tracks. I want to take your picture.

Ms. MULLER: Like, step back closer to the cliff so I can get a really good photo of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: After lunch, her steering wheel locks up, and I find myself pushing her car up an extremely steep hill. Near Golden Gate Park, a speeding police car nearly sideswipes us.

(Soundbite of sirens)

DEL BARCO: And perched along the treacherous cliffs at China Beach, Muller has trouble getting her car in reverse. We keep lurching forward.

Yikes. That's another good murder scene right there.

Ms. MULLER: Mm-hmm, right through.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Right through, on down to the beach.

Well, we don't die this day, but continue to scheme.

What's your favorite type of murder?

Ms. MULLER: Sometimes a stabbing is nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MULLER: It's something anyone can do. Everybody has a kitchen knife.

DEL BARCO: Have you ever been tempted?

Ms. MULLER: No, I'd get caught. I really would get caught. I don't have the nerve for something like that. Also, I don't know anyone I'd really care to murder.

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

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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