Patti Abbott, host of FFB each week, declared today as a Hers or His Day with works to feature either Marcia Muller or Bill Pronzini. Barry’s Ergang review subject, The Bughouse Affair is by both authors. After you read Barry’s review, head on over to Patti’s blog and consider the other reading suggestions for Friday's Forgotten Books this week.
THE BUGHOUSE AFFAIR (2013) by Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
The year is 1894, the city is San Francisco, and Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon, owners and operators of Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, have been partnered for over three years. “When they had met by chance in Silver City, Idaho, he had been an operative of the United States Secret Service investigating a counterfeiting operation, and she had been a Pink Rose, one of the select handful of women employed as investigators by the Pinkerton International Detective Agency, at the time working undercover to expose a pyramid swindle involving mining company stock. Circumstances had led them to join forces to mutually satisfactory conclusions, and resulted in an alliance that had prompted Quincannon” to suggest the business partnership—an equal one—to which Sabina agreed.
In the case under consideration, Sabina has just been hired by the owner of the Haight Street Chutes Amusement Park to find and stop the activities of a pickpocket who has been plaguing the site’s customers. Quincannon, meanwhile, has been hired by the Great Western Insurance Company to find and stop the activities of a burglar who has already robbed the homes of three “prominent citizens,” all of whom are policy-holders. The company suspects that at least three other such citizens are targets.
When the detectives manage to identify the objects of their separate pursuits as pickpocket Clara Wilds and burglar “Dodger” Brown, they wonder if their cases have somehow converged because Clara and Dodger are known to be—or to have been—a romantic pairing. But then Sabina finds Clara dead, murdered, and Dodger immediately becomes a prime suspect.
Complicating the detectives’ lives, Quincannon’s in particular, is an Englishman who claims to be Sherlock Holmes. Ambrose Bierce has already surmised in his newspaper column that the man is an impostor because it is well known that Holmes died three years earlier in a plummet from a Swiss waterfall. Whether Holmes or not, he insinuates himself into Quincannon’s investigation, which becomes much more than the pursuit of Dodger Brown. It evolves into the investigation of an impossible crime when an attorney, Andrew Costain, requests a meeting with Quincannon at his home. The latter observes someone breaking into the home: “Up and over the railing there, briefly silhouetted: the same small figure dressed in dark cap and clothing. Across to the door, and at work there for just a few seconds. The door opened, closed again behind the burglar.” When Quincannon and Holmes, the Englishman having watched the house from a different direction, enter, they find Andrew Costain dead—both stabbed and shot—in a study whose doors and windows are locked from the inside. The two of them had previously taken precautions to effectively seal the house against exit or entry, yet their quarry managed to evade capture and vanish.
As Holmes, or pseudo-Holmes, sums up the conundrum to Quincannon: “…You are adept at solving seemingly impossible crimes. How then did the pannyman manage a double escape? Why was Andrew Costain shot as well as stabbed? Why was the pistol left in the locked study and the bloody stiletto taken away? And why was the study door bolted in the first place? A pretty puzzle, eh, Quincannon? One to challenge the deductive skills of even the cleverest sleuth.”
Count this reader as one who easily nailed down the identity of the murderer upon spotting a particular clue, but who did not come close to solving the locked room/sealed house aspects of the puzzle. The first in a series about the Carpenter/Quincannon partnership, this well-paced novel melds an enticing puzzle plot with humor, picturesque characters, and colorful descriptions, based on the authors’ research, of the San Francisco of the 1900s.
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini are Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award-winners. The only other married couple to achieve that distinction was Margaret Millar and Ross Macdonald. As much as I recommend The Bughouse Affair, the meaning of whose title will become evident not long after one gets into the book, the authors’ reputations, separate and combined, recommend it far more.
© 2016 Barry Ergang