I’ve been enjoying Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mystery series for many years, since it began with Edwin of the Iron Shoes back in 1977. When I noticed that Muller had published the first in a new series, written with her husband Bill Pronzini, I bought a copy and quickly misplaced it in my fear-inspiring collection of unread books (so many books, so little time). When I learned that two more books have come out in the series, I found The Bughouse Affair on my mystery shelf and read it.
“Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services,” has been in business in San Francisco for three years when The Bughouse Affair opens in 1894. Sabina Carpenter is a former Pinkerton investigator, widowed when her husband was killed on a case. John Quincannon is a former Secret Service Agent. Their partnership is strictly business, although Quincannon would like something more to develop (and perhaps it will, in time).
While an Englishman who claims to be Sherlock Holmes meddles in their investigations, Sabina and John find that their separate cases, involving burglars, pickpockets, and murder, are actually related. But the real charm of the book for me is the detailed and very believable description of life and business in the San Francisco of 1894. If you enjoy the setting, you will enjoy the book.
Also set in the late nineteenth century, but not fiction at all, is Evan Schwartz’ Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story. As the subtitle suggests, this is less straight biography than a portrait of the society and political events that influenced Baum. I picked the book up because, although I am a life-long Oz fan, I knew little about it’s creator. I learned that Baum dabbled in a variety of business ventures, most of them less than successful, lived in a number of places, and married the daughter of a well-known crusading feminist. I also learned a great deal about the life and times of the period.
I found some of Schwartz’ conclusions a bit far-fetched (he did not convince me that the massacre at Wounded Knee was reflected somewhere in The Wizard of Oz), but the book was definitely entertaining. I have a couple of anthologies containing the first ten Oz books on my shelf (Schwartz shows little interest in Baum’s career post-Wizard) and I may just reread them one of these days.
Howard Blum’s American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century is the story of the terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Time building in 1910. Like many “crime of the century” events, this one has been largely forgotten. I’d never heard of it, and when I mentioned it recently to a friend who grew up in L.A., she didn’t know about it, either.
Blum’s narration mostly follows the efforts of William Burns, known in his day as “the American Sherlock Holmes,” to identify and track down the bombers, but he also brings in D.W. Griffith, who finds inspiration in the case as the movie industry moves from New York to Hollywood, and the attorney Clarence Darrow, who was involved in the defense of the accused bombers. Griffith’s involvement seemed a bit tenuous to me, but I enjoyed the descriptions of the early movie business.
American Lightning gives an interesting picture of the U.S. (and Los Angeles in particular) a century ago, and reminds us that terrorism is nothing new.