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WesternSFA
The Spook Lights Affair
by Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini
Forge, $14.99, 256pp
Publication Date: November 4, 2014
Here's a mystery with serious clout behind it: it's written by the husband and wife team of Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, who each have dozens of novels and a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America to their name. No other living couple can claim the same.

I wonder how they wrote this one, because it explores an odd partnership in an odd way. Given that the two detectives at the heart of the story have separate cases, which they investigate separately in separate chapters, I wouldn't be surprised to find that they took one each and only joined forces towards the end to tie the two together and make it all flow.

While this might seem to be the second Carpenter and Quincannon novel, published soon after 2013's 'The Bughouse Affair' and with 'The Body Snatchers Affair' coming next year, it really isn't. Pronzini wrote 'Quincannon' as far back as 1985, and a sequel, 'Beyond the Grave', a year later, in collaboration with Muller, at that time just his writing partner. 'Quincannon's Game,' another solo novel, didn't arrive for two decades, though at least one collection of short stories showed up in the meantime, 'Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services' in 1998.

In other words, Muller and Pronzini clearly have a connection to the characters and decided to explore them further in 2013. The timing is right because these are period mysteries, this one unfolding in the San Francisco of 1895, so a good choice for the steampunk crowd, even if it isn't remotely science fiction. Personally, I enjoyed the Victorian flavor of the city, which being west coast has a more condensed and less genteel history than the big cities in the east. We spend time in the Barbary Coast and the Tenderloin, as well as the odd 'oceanside enclave' of Carville-by-the-Sea; all were real parts of the city.

The period also endows the cases with an exotic flavor, which usually comes from a strange location but can just as easily come from a strange time. That's what will grab the steampunkers the most, along with the mild supernatural undercurrents which follow both cases in play but don't remotely suggest a move into horror territory, instead making the novel occasionally feel like a literary take on 'Scooby Doo.' The quirkiness of one recurring character will also play well to steampunkers; he presents himself as the real Sherlock Holmes, and while both Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon see him as a lunatic, of course, they can't fault either his methods or his results, as he flits in and out of their cases, neatly shaking things up.

Carpenter's case is to keep an eye on a young debutante, Virginia St Ives, whose parents are worried because she's been seen in the repeated company of a gentleman of whom they do not approve. It might seem to be a boring case, but it soon spices up when Virginia takes Sabina for a run through the grounds, ending with a leap to her death from a parapet. The catch is that nobody can find the body, which suggests a deeper mystery than it might initially seem.

Meanwhile Quincannon has his heart set on the reward offered by Wells Fargo for the return of the $35,000 recently stolen by a lone bandit from one of their Express offices. So, while his partner is hobnobbing with the mayor and other powers behind the city, he's slumming it in Barbary Coast dives trying to find a lead.

The contrast between the two cases is palpable and a selling point for the novel. Sabina deals with people who are polite even with their insults while John investigates with fists and threats. She's a strong woman and he's a strong man, which is why they work well together and why they occasionally clash; not least, about the possibility of moving their relationship beyond merely professional. However, she waltzes through what often feels like an early Christie or Sayers, while he takes the tougher road, somewhat like a hard-boiled detective before the pulps gave us hard-boiled detectives.

There's very little connection between the two here, as their cases keep them separated for the majority of the book, but eventually they merge and so the pair actually find themselves in the same place at the same time on occasion. It is odd, but refreshing, to see such a partnership so disjointed in one sense but still completely functional. The only problem comes as the gradual connections between the cases don't have enough time to fully develop, so we merge a little too quickly in the end.

I hadn't encountered this series before, but this volume is a quick and easy read, 250 pages on the nose. The chapters, which for most of the book alternate roughly between the two cases, are constructed well enough that it's easy to put one down to pick up the other, so to speak. Each flows well, these veteran writers able to progress a mystery in their sleep but putting in more effort than that here.

I enjoyed it a lot more as a historical novel than a mystery, though the historical side does includes the detectives and how they pursue their cases. The actual mysteries seemed a lot less important to me, perhaps because they weren't particularly hard to figure out. In other words, I enjoyed the journey a lot more than the destination, especially as it takes the characters through locations that are at once familiar (to the degree that I have work colleagues who walk these streets every day) and alien (because they looked very different 120 years ago.)

I don't know if anyone's going to fall in love with the work of either Muller or Pronzini on this one's merits alone, but the well-drawn setting and the fluidity of the prose will hardly put readers off. Both authors have enough titles behind them for those who enjoy this to have plenty of exploration room to discover the best of their bibliographies. The rest of the Carpenter and Quincannon series would be first to pick up, but perhaps with the previous volume next rather than the earlier ones. For a change, this is a series that clearly doesn't need to be read in order. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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