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Partners in Crime


Stronger than fiction: Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller have found the write stuff in one another and in their 15-year relationship.

Married writers share the sweet mystery of life

By David Templeton

CLIMBING the Petaluma hill that leads to the striking, almost palatial home of mystery writers Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, it is hard to avoid getting little mental flashes of Nick and Nora Charles, those aristocratic, martini-sipping party sleuths of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man novel, and the glorious black-and-white movies of the '30s and '40s based on it.

Starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, those films were a paean to the inescapable romantic notions inherent in the mystery genre. By literalizing the romance, in the form of cuddly, married crime-solvers, the films perpetrated the quaint idea that murder and mayhem, under proper circumstances, are good for the heart.

It's certainly been good for Muller and Pronzini. As the writer of the long-standing Sharon McCone mysteries, Muller has written dozens of best-selling crime novels and is widely revered as the creator of the first contemporary female character to step into the formerly all-male shoes of detectives like Sam Spade and Easy Rawlins. Her latest McCone novel, The Broken Promise Land (Mysterious Press, 1996), will be released in June. Pronzini, with over 120 books bearing his name, is the man behind the boundlessly clever Nameless Detective series, the 23rd of which, Sentinels (Carroll & Graf, 1996), will be unveiled in August.

NOW, with 15 years of love between them, numerous literary awards apiece, and the financial rewards of authoring two popular series, Muller and Pronzini seem to be the very definition of success.

As for the idea that their life as mystery writers is tinged with romance, the mere suggestion is received with a mixture of amusement and amazement.

"I wish it was true!" Pronzini laughs, taking a seat across from Muller in their light-filled living room.

"Facing that blank page every day is not very romantic," Muller smiles. "It's hard work."

"We treat it strictly like a business," Pronzini admits. "We keep regular hours. This is a job. Yes, there are a lot of perks that go with this particular job, but is it romantic? Um . . . no."

"The research part of it is one of the real positive elements," Muller suggests. "We travel to a lot of places."

Well, this sounds exciting. Just like Nick and Nora, traversing the globe in search of adventure in exotic locales.

"We're taking a trip next week," she offers. "We're going to Minnesota."

I see.

All further attempts at romanticizing the lives of Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller are now formally dropped.

I'M AN OLD movie junkie," Pronzini declares, naming some of the influences that led to his choice of occupation. "I grew up reading the old mystery writers. Chandler. Hammett."

Inspired by their books and other genre fiction--Pronzini favoring the Ken Holt mystery series, and Muller the various mysteries written for girls--each wrote their first novels at the age of 12.

"We still have 'em, too," Pronzini boasts.

Asked if the fledgling efforts were any good, they laugh merrily as if at some private joke.

"They are instant humility," he says, quickly adding, "Hers is better than mine."

"I illustrated mine," Muller laughs. "Unfortunately, I am not an artist."

Were these first novels mysteries? "Mine was," Pronzini affirms. "It was called The Devil's Island Mystery."

"Mine was about my dog," Muller smiles. "Though it did have mystery elements to it. I guess we both knew where we were going."

PRONZINI'S TRANSITION from amateur writer to published author was fairly straightforward. Muller, however, suffered an early emotional setback when a college instructor lambasted her writing abilities.

"At the end of the course," she recalls, "He told me I would never become a writer, because . . ."

She pauses to laugh, and Pronzini, knowing what comes next, laughs with her. "Because I, 'had nothing to say.'"

"He got that wrong," Pronzini grins.

TODAY it is hard to imagine the landscape of mystery fiction without the self-examining intellect of Sharon McCone, the private eye Muller first introduced to the world in the now-classic 1977 novel Edwin of the Iron Shoes.

Likewise, it is hard to fathom there never having been a Nameless Detective series, so called because of Pronzini's ever-more-elaborate ways of avoiding the mention of his most famous character's given name, an edgy device that works well with the author's hard-edged, witty explorations of solitude, isolation, madness, and philosophical issues concerning personal identity.

"The Nameless Detective is essentially me," Pronzini admits. "I'm fairly opinionated, and he tends to be pretty opinionated. It's a nice way of getting my opinions out into the world. And all I'm doing," he grins, "is writing a braver me in a different profession."

Aside from the difference that Pronzini has a name, is there anything that separates the two? "Well, he's older than me," he chuckles. "Or he was. I'm starting to catch up to him."

THIS PROLIFIC DUO, working together at home, manage to pound out the pages without pouncing on each other, a neat trick for any couple. How do they do it?

"Very cautiously," Muller replies. They work at opposite ends of the house and meet throughout the day to read each other's drafts and make suggestions. Using this alone-together approach, they've collaborated on three novels, and hope to do more.

"We like doing those," Pronzini says. "We just sit down at the table with a bottle of wine and plot out sections together. Then we each go off and write our own sections. Then we meet, read them back and forth, and when we have something we're satisfied with, we plot out the next section. It's fun."

But not without an undercurrent of danger.

"We unconsciously steal from each other," he grins, confessing that character names and background details are occasionally lifted. "I stole the name of your bar that time," Muller laughs. "He was reading through my pages, and said, 'Wait a minute! You took my bar!' Unconsciously, I'd registered the name, and then when I needed one, I thought it was my idea."

"Some writers have enormous egos," Pronzini says. "But we're not like that. We respect each other's opinion. We're willing to take advice from each other."

"It's true. There's nothing that can't be improved," Muller adds. Sounds like a healthy attitude.

"It's worked for us," he asserts. Locking gazes for a moment, they exchange smiles in apparent agreement.

Isn't that romantic?

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From the 16-22, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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