“The Breakers” by Marcia Muller

The BreakersI’ve griped a bit about recent entries in Marcia Muller’s long-running Sharon McCone private-eye series—The Breakers is, by my count, #34—mainly the emphasis on the once-scrappy detective’s elevation to the one percent, complete with frequent references to her fancy downtown San Francisco office building, her Mercedes, and the “buttery leather furnishings” in her luxurious Marina District home. Plus, Sharon now has so many employees, friends and relations that you practically need a scorecard to keep track of them all.

Well, McCone fans rejoice, because The Breakers is the best novel in the series in years, a real back-to-basics private-eye story. As the book opens, a lot of the usual suspects—husband Hy, computer whiz Mick—are out of town, so Sharon has to do most of the investigating on her own, at least initially.

Regular readers will be familiar with Chelle, Sharon’s former next-door neighbor, cat-sitter and all-around enterprising young businesswoman. Now in her 20s, Chelle has purchased a derelict building called The Breakers in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset and is planning to rehab it. Her worried parents reach out to Sharon because they haven’t been able to get in touch with their daughter, who had moved into the run-down apartment complex while she worked on it.

Another resident of the building, Zach Kaplan, tells Sharon he has no idea where she is, either. When Zach takes her on a tour of The Breakers, McCone finds a horrifying tableau in Chelle’s room, hidden behind a decorative Japanese screen: a collage of newspaper clippings about notorious California killers, from Charles Manson to the Zodiac. The grim discovery adds to her feelings of dread about Chelle’s disappearance.

By coincidence, I had just visited the neighborhood where The Breakers is set a couple weeks before I read it; the novel takes place in August, and I enjoyed Muller’s vivid descriptions of the chilly San Francisco summer, with fog “so heavy that it felt almost like drizzly rain.” Gradually, McCone’s associates and loved ones reenter the picture and offer assistance with the investigation, but the focus is always on the detective herself, as diligent and determined as she was in her 1977 debut, Edwin of the Iron Shoes.

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