Comparing Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller

I equate Sara Paretsky with Marcia Muller because both are early female writers that have created a hard-boiled female lead character. The two authors are just three years apart in age and both began their mystery series in their mid-thirties. Muller’s first book Edwin of the Iron Shoes, however, came out in 1977, five years prior to Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. Both authors are well educated and teach us about strong, independent women. Neither of their characters is silly or manipulative when it comes to their relationships with men or with their work.

Although I love Muller’s Sharon McCone character and have read almost all of her books, I sometimes feel there is something missing. A bookstore owner recently told me that McCone was too normal, and perhaps that is what leaves me wanting more. When you are normal, you don’t have as far to grow as someone who is on the edge. There is more story and plot with McCone and less drama. Over the course of the series McCone gradually owns her own business and picks her own clients, while Warshawski has owned her business for years when we first meet her in Indemnity Only.

Paretsky’s character, V. I. Warshawski, is more combative, as we see in her very first book. She is more likely to get into a physical confrontation than is McCone, and like many male-written, hard-boiled private eyes, she doesn’t pull any verbal punches. Her truthful, but provocative remarks remind me of Crais’s early Elvis Cole. I also enjoy her ease with men. Whereas her character’s violent career turns men off, I don’t doubt for a minute that in Paretsky’s real life, men have been turned off by both her ambition and her intelligence.

Paretsky’s world, based on her first book only, appears grittier than Muller’s. Chicago politics and corruption act as another character that collides and confronts Warshawski. Even rush hour traffic plays a larger role than in McCone’s San Francisco. Having been raised in Illinois, I understand the history that clouds midwestern attitudes like the cold, windy gray skies under which they live. In California, life is indeed sunnier, and it is this newer, more optimistic attitude that appears in McCone’s steadiness of character and general outlook.

I like Warshawski’s softer side and her compassion for other characters, as much as I like her ability to distance herself in order to get the job done. This is a lady I look forward to getting to know better. At the same time I appreciate the efficiency and cerebral nature of McCone’s approach to problem solving. I respect both authors, not only for their personal accomplishments, but also for reminding us of the independent nature of women that came out of the 1960s. These women can indeed get the job done.

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