by ZJ Czupor

Imposing Order on a Chaotic World

This award-winning, best-selling author gravitated toward crime writing because of certain events she experienced as a child and young adult. For example:

  • Her dentist shot and killed his wife and child…
  • A favorite high school teacher (and mother of a friend) was brutally murdered by her husband…
  • A friend’s father was killed when the airliner on which he was flying exploded in midair by a bomb…
  • A college friend who lived in the next dorm room committed suicide…and
  • Another college acquaintance was murdered a killing that was never solved.

She said, “Terrible things may happen, people may die, but in the end there is an explanation as to why these events occurred and justice is meted out. Unlike in real life, both the reader and the writer are presented with answers and closure. I naturally gravitated to crime writing as a way of making sense of these seemingly random events. The detective story imposes order upon a chaotic world.”

She was born in Detroit in 1944, the youngest of four children, to parents who valued books and education. Her father was an oil executive and loved to tell stories, and her mother was amused by her interest in writing. She had two older sisters and a brother. Her sisters handed down their “Nancy Drew” and “Judy Bolton” mystery novels and classics, which filled a cabinet in her bedroom. At the age of twelve, she self-published three pamphlet-sized novels about her cocker spaniel. Her parents and relatives gave it high marks.

As an adult, she majored in English and journalism at the University of Michigan and took a creative writing course in which her instructor said she’d never be a writer because she had nothing to say. She moved to San Francisco in 1967 and worked as a reporter and in the merchandising department for Sunset magazine. But Muller soon learned she wasn’t cut out to be a reporter because, in her mind, her interview subjects were boring, so she started making up things they never said.

In 1967, after college, she moved to San Francisco and worked as a reporter and in the merchandising department for Sunset magazine. But soon learned she wasn’t cut out to be a reporter because, in her mind, her interview sugjects were borking, so she started making up things they never said. As we know, editors frown on that practice.

While in San Francisco, she discovered the hard-boiled novels of Ross Macdonald, a fellow University of Michigan graduate, and decided to give fiction writing another try. She took on temporary office jobs while writing. After three manuscripts and five years of rejections, Marcia Muller published her first novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes in 1977 (David McKay Company) and introduced a trailblazing San Francisco private eye named Sharon McCone.

Muller decided to make her protagonist a female detective because she said she didn’t know anything about being a man. Muller picked Sharon as a first name after a college roommate and the last name McCone after John McCone (1902-1991), a former head of the CIA.

Muller approaches her novels by using the classical puzzle form of the mystery to introduce a contemporary female sleuth, a figure, who at the time, had surprisingly few counterparts in the world of detective fiction.

In her first novel, a cheerful, middle-aged antiques dealer is murdered. McCone follows the killer’s trail to a museum frequented by San Francisco’s elite socialites.

Literary historians and critics claim that Muller’s hard-boiled female sleuth, Sharon McCone, is the first ever unconventional female private detective of the modern era, and her protagonist preceded Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.

However, there’s always a caveat: A few years before Muller’s Sharon McCone appeared, English novelist P. D. James (1920-2014) introduced Cordelia Gray, a London private eye, but Gray only appeared in two novels, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) and The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982).

After Muller’s publisher stopped doing fiction and her editor left, she couldn’t find another publisher interested in her work. Four years later, the publishing industry realized that female private eyes and police officers did exist, and that the reading public was interested.

In 1982, she met a new editor, at St. Martin’s Press, who agreed to publish her second novel, Ask the Cards a Question. This was the same publishing house where another editor had previously rejected the novel. She said, “…proving the rule that it only takes one person to really respond to your work and get you into print.”

Publishers Weekly praised her second novel saying “fans…won’t be disappointed with this,” and a Booklist review, called her novel “a perfectly plotted follow-up to Muller’s first novel.” That helped to launch her career as her novels appealed to women, men, and young adults.

After the publishing world caught on to the interest in female detectives, both Grafton and Paretsky’s debut novels were published about three months later. Muller said she got a head start because Sue Grafton had been writing screenplays, and Sara Paretsky had been working as an insurance executive.

Muller’s writing is noted for her realistic depictions of McCone, her evolving character, and her vivid descriptions of the San Francisco Bay area, where you can taste the fog and smell the seaweed. Her prose has been called smooth and her stories peppered with witty dialogue, with diverting fast-moving plots, and diverse and well-developed characters.

Muller said McCone’s evolution as starting out being “very excited about being a private eye, very thrilled with her life in the big city…The events she’s encountered since then have made her more cynical, less willing to take people and situations at face value, tougher, and much more professional.”

Sue Grafton calls Marcia Muller “the founding mother of the contemporary female hard-boiled private eye.” Muller said both she and Grafton are “sick of that but it just keeps getting used.”

To date, Muller has written about thirty Sharon McCone novels with two million copies in print and translations into eight languages and another mystery series featuring Joanna Stark, a security system expert and Elena Oliverez, a museum curator, which Muller said she wrote out of financial necessity. She said publishers were not paying that much for mystery novels at the time. “It was not really enough to live on, but since I had few other recognizable skills, I needed to do more than one book a year to survive.”

Soon after, Muller’s editor moved to Mysterious Press, and she persuaded Muller to follow her with her McCone series. Muller said they took her more seriously and offered her more support. “They energized me, and I was able to do the McCone books at greater length and with a more ambitious content.”

In terms of her approach to writing, Muller said, “I plan my books very little. It starts with a situation, a character, or something that is interesting to me, or something that is annoying me at the time, and I may have an idea of how it is going to end. I just develop characters and situations and hurl them on the paper and just see how they are interacting, see where they are going. The plot line is totally, loose. The early books I plotted a lot more tightly because I was insecure. Ideas suggest themselves in a given session at the typewriter, or over the period of a couple of days. Then I’ll have the ideas for maybe two more chapters and then more things will come up. It just sort of tumbles together.”

She writes five days a week and it takes her about nine months to complete a book, plus several months of research beforehand. She conducts four kinds of research: (1) from written sources, (2) conversations with experts, (3) Internet searches, and (4) on-site visits to locations where she takes photographs and makes tape-recorded note. Her most challenging research was learning to fly a plane. She took flying lessons since her character, McCone, had become a pilot in her mystery series.

Muller has also written a collection of Western short stories title Time of the Wolves. One of her stories was nominated for a Spur Award by the Western Writers of America. She said, “As with any of my departures from the McCone series, I wanted to experiment with something new and stretch my abilities as a writer.”

Muller is married to the American mystery author Bill Pronzini. They have co-authored two mysteries, and nine books in another series. Muller also published two standalone novels with Pronzini, and on her own, several short story collections and with Pronzini edited more than a dozen anthologies.

She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (2005). Her husband, Pronzini, won the same award from MWA in 2008. They are the only living couple to have won the same award individually. They live in northern California

She said the defining moment of her writing career occurred some twenty-five years ago after she spent time as a twenty-year-old researching in the San Francisco Public Library. Fast forward to the present where she enters the library, goes to the mystery shelves, and takes down one of her own books. Then she goes to the card catalogue, opens the last “M” drawer, and finds the card listing her latest title.

Not bad for a multiple award-winning writer whose teacher told her she had nothing to say and yet, she still chose writing as a profession to impose order upon a chaotic world.

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Author’s Notes:

Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, known professionally as P. D. James, was an English novelist. Her rise to fame came with her series of detective novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh, the police commander and poet.

Bill Pronzini married Muller in 1992 and created a character named the “Nameless Detective” who is featured in more than forty books and several short stories. He’s won numerous awards for his writing including a 1972 Edgar nomination from MWA for his debut novel, The Stalker, in the Best First Mystery Novel category.

John McCone directed the Central Intelligence Agency from 1961-1965, serving under President Kennedy and Johnson. His niece claimed McCone expressed amusement when he learned Muller used his last name for her protagonist.