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

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."

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
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NPR
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.

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."

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
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NPR
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.

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."

In 2005, author Marcia Muller was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.
Mandalit del Barco / NPR
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NPR
In 2005, author Marcia Muller was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.