Friday, March 31, 2017

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair

Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini, The Body Snatcher Affair
A Tom Doherty & Associated Book/Forge © 2014The Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
eISBN: 987-1-4299-9723-2

The third book featuring Sabina Carpenter and John Quincannon finds Quincannon in Chinatown to find, and return to his home, James Scarlett, an attorney who has been doing a lot of work for one of the tongs in Chinatown.  Meanwhile Carpenter, who has been spending a fair amount of time with Carson Montgomery (a mining engineer), and who is now wondering where the relationship might be going, has accepted a job from the widow of Ruben Blanchford, who had been a financier in life—his body has been stolen, and the thieves are asking for $75,000 for its return.

Things go awry quite quickly for Quincannon—he finds Scarlett quickly enough (in a Chinatown opium den), but Scarlett is shot (and killed) while Quincannon is taking him home.  The police are concerned that this might trigger a gang war in Chinatown; Quincannon concurs, but suggests restraint.  His concern is who killed Scarlett (and nearly killed him), and why.  To discover that, he needs some time, to search Scarlett’s office and to probe the situation in Chinatown.  And, as he discovers, there is also a body missing in Chinatown.

Carpenter, in her case, finds what appears to  be an impossible theft of Blanchford’s body from the family crypt—nothing has been obviously disturbed, and the crypt was (apparently) continuously locked.  The only anomalous fact is that the preparation of the body for interment was handled by a third-rate mortician.

And in the background, “Sherlock Holmes” (an Englishman who either is Holmes or is using his name and reputation) seems to be investigating Carson Montgomery.

Muller and Pronzini do an excellent job of establishing their characters and bringing San Francisco in the 1890s to life.  Chinatown, in many ways, dominates the book, and the social/economic/political structure of Chinatown and of the rest of the city are perfectly done (at least so it seems to me.  Both Carpenter and Quincannon pursue their investigations professionally and according to their characters as they have been established in the first two books.  And if the reader does not learn everything that either of them learns in the course of their investigations, that’s a minor departure from the ideal of the “fair play” mystery.

All three of the Carpenter/Quincannon books are well worth  your time, and thie might be the best of the three.

As an aside (, the issue of opium use among the Chinese is an important issue in the relationships between the Western countries and China, and between the immigrant and the Anglo population in SF.  It’s important to remember that opium was introduced to China by English and French merchants seeking to find something that they could sell profitably to a large Chinese market that had little use for European goods.  (At the same time, Europe was buying huge quantities of things, from tea to spices to silks, from China.)  The Second Opium War (1856-1860) resulted in China being forced to accept a very punitive peace treaty, and yield considerable control of its internal affairs to France and England.  Two important aspects of the treaty is that trade in opium was made legal, and was under European control, and that British ships had a monopoly on the transportation of Chinese as “indentured” workers (but, in reality, virtually as slaves) to the Americas.  William Gladstone, who served off and on as Prime Minister of England in the late 19th century denounced the opium trade as "a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace".[

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