Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Bughouse Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

The Basics:
The Bughouse Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
Tom Doherty Associates
Published May 22, 2013

I picked this book up in my local library's "What's New" section.

In The Bughouse Affair, this first of a new series of lighthearted historical mysteries set in 1890s San Francisco, former Pinkerton operative Sabina Carpenter and her detective partner, ex-Secret Service agent John Quincannon, undertake what initially appear to be two unrelated investigations.

Sabina's case involves the hunt for a ruthless lady "dip" who uses fiendish means to relieve her victims of their valuables at Chutes Amusement Park and other crowded places.  Quincannon, meanwhile, is after a slippery housebreaker who targets the homes of wealthy residents, following a trail that leads him from the infamous Barbary Coast to an oyster pirate's lair to a Tenderloin parlor house known as the Fiddle Dee Dee.
The two cases eventually connect in surprising fashion, but not before two murders and assorted other felonies complicate matters even further. And not before the two sleuths are hindered, assisted, and exasperated by the bughouse Sherlock Holmes.

What worked for me:

It's been a long time since I've read a straight mystery, and I found the experience quite enjoyable. I was very conscious of reading in a different way than when I read romance or fantasy or another genre. Mysteries contain a lot more detail and require you to either fully buy-in or else be unable to engage with the story at all (in my opinion).  

The Bughouse Affair was satisfyingly thick on details. The criminal world of 1890s San Francisco comes alive as Sabina and John investigate their two cases. From the language used to the techniques that criminals employed, it's clear that this was a well-researched novel. I did have to think through some of the slang - I was unfamiliar with a fair amount of fit - but it added some needed colour to the book.

I think that the structure of the book - chapters written from either John's or Sabina's perspective - was a clever way to allow the husband-wife team to write the book together. The two characters are written as fully conceived persons: they have histories, they have flaws and different strengths. I was impressed by just how much of their characters came through - sometimes I find detectives in mystery novels to be hastily sketched at best. Of course, given the accolades that these two authors have garnered for past work, I'm not surprised by the quality of the writing.

What didn't work for me:

The inclusion of the Sherlock Holmes character was an interesting choice for me. I didn't necessarily dislike it, but it seemed like an element out of place in a book that was otherwise plausible.  

I had a hard time sinking into this book. I'm not sure what it was - I liked it, definitely. Maybe I just didn't care enough about the resolution of the murder? The stakes didn't seem high for Sabina and John, so perhaps I wasn't invested in the outcome? Regardless, I picked up and put down the book several times before I was able to finish reading it - rarely a good sign! 

Bottom Line:

This was a solid mystery set in a fully rendered 1890s San Francisco. The characters were real to me, I wanted them to be successful.... But. The book was lacking something - perhaps high stakes, perhaps tension, perhaps I simply lacked the attention span for it right now. Whatever the case, it was good, but I didn't ever feel that need to keep turning the pages, to find out what was going to happen next and to make sure that the detectives solved the case(s)!

3.5 stars
For fans of period mysteries,  male-female detective teams, dry wit, Sherlock Holmes.

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