Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Burn OutBurn Out by Marcia Muller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"No longer visible by day or night were the brownish-white towers of calcified vegetation - tufa - that gave the lake its name. Years ago, the siphoning off of feeder streams for drought-stricken southern California had caused the lake's level gradually to sink and reveal the underwater towers [...] they were saved by conservationists [...] and now the streams flowed freely, the lake teemed with life."

I wish the descriptions of nature featured more prominently in Marcia Muller's Burn Out (2008): Mono Lake - renamed Tufa Lake in the novel, presumably for legal reasons - and its vicinity are some of the most fascinating places in the US and each visit to Mono County makes me even more happy that I became a Californian. Alas the novel is focused on Sharon McCone, the narrator of the story, rather than on the California landscapes. Ms. McCone, a "full-blooded Shoshone" Native American, a private investigator and the owner of a thriving investigative agency in San Francisco, is suffering from severe depression (the title "burn-out") after almost getting killed on the job. When recuperating on her and her husband's ranch she is forced to return to the profession when she finds the body of her ranch foreman's niece. Ms. McCone hesitatingly undertakes a private investigation, which soon significantly widens to involve many characters.

Unfortunately, Ms. McCone, despite being a college graduate, an accomplished pilot, and a skillful detective, is a singularly uninteresting character. It is a pity that the author focuses so much on the protagonist because the later parts of the story (after about page 130 in hardcover edition) are very interesting and keep the reader glued to the text. The plot reminds me of Ross Macdonald's books in that the crimes of today are caused by people's misdeeds in the distant past and also because the truth is uncovered gradually, bit by bit. Ms. Muller's otherwise competent writing suffers from two major flaws: the incessant stream of detailed descriptions of the characters' basic actions, such as cooking, eating, etc. - probably designed to make the characters seem more realistic - is irritating. (Ms. Grafton suffers the same malady in her late novels about Kinsey Millhone - I stopped reading her at "U"). Second, and even worse, why does the author use this pretentious and annoying manner of quoting Ms. McCone's "inner voice" in italics?

To sum up: interesting plot, great locations of the high desert area near Mono Lake, climactic ending that almost avoids being silly, and a reasonably plausible resolution of mystery spoiled by too much of Sharon McCone and way too many words. This is the 26th novel in a series that has over 30 titles, yet while I would gladly return to Mono Lake landscapes I doubt if I will be coming back to Ms. McCone.

Two and a half stars.

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