MELODIE JOHNSON HOWE – The Mother Shadow. Claire Conrad & Maggie Hill #1. Viking, hardcover, 1989. Penguin, paperback, 1990.

   The story is told by Maggie Hill, who is not a PI when the story begins, nor if I read it right, not even when it ends. But in between, she does find herself doing a lot of the legwork for Claire Conrad, who is a PI, albeit one of the more eccentric ones you may ever come across in a mystery novel before.

   That includes even a certain Nero Wolfe, who you probably have come across and who I’ll get back to shortly. Claire Conrad is tall, brilliant, dressed all in black – or all in white – depending on which of every alternate day it happens to be. She does not believe in love, she tells Miss Hill, and in fact (she also tells her), she has had all her lady parts removed.

   Maggie, on other hand, is a young, jaded, yet brassy temp worker based in Los Angeles. As the story begins, she has plenty of attitude and is not afraid to show it, but as the story continues, it is clear that she has met her match with Clair Conrad. See above.

   She has been working with a wealthy man helping him catalog his coin collection, but one morning their routine is changed. With a lawyer present, he asks Maggie to type up a codicil to his will, one in which he directs his coin collection to be left to a mysterious Clair Conrad, a name she does not recognize. More importantly, he specifically states that his family – mother, brother, sister – are not to receive any proceeds from it. When done, the lawyer (a TV personality with all the charm of a snake) leaves, and Maggie’s employer goes upstairs and shoots himself.

   What’s more, you guessed it, the codicil, left in Maggie’s possession, has – in the confusion – disappeared, and here is where the mystery begins. One involving a host of family secrets, some of which are quite salacious indeed, and hardly ones to mentioned in polite society. The mystery is solved more by legwork than out-and-out deductivity, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Unfortunately I did not find any of the other players involved in the tale all that interesting, and their problems even less so, for whatever that’s worth.

   At the time the book was published, much was made of the Conrad/Hill relationship as compared with the Wolfe/Goodwin one. While it is of course at once obvious, I’d have to pass on that until I’ve read another one. This is only a first book, after all, and the interaction between the two is an edgy one. They’re still getting to know another.

   This first book was nominated for an Edgar, and a long series was expected, but for unknown reasons, it never developed. There was only one more book featuring the two of them, that being Beauty Dies, published in 1994. After that the slate on the two was closed forever.