Review: The Shape of Dread by Marcia Muller

The Shape of Dread is the 9th book in the Sharon McCone series. As with the other books in the series it is set largely in San Francisco and features the highly competent investigator who works for the All Souls Legal Cooperative. The book was nominated for the 1990 Shamus Award for Best PI Novel.

Book Details

Title: The Shape of Dread
Author: Marcia Muller
Pages: 282
Published Date: November 1989
Publisher: Mysterious Press
Series Details: 9th book in the Sharon McCone series

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Publisher's Synopsis

Bobby Foster, car-hop at the chic Cafe Comedie, is going to the gas chamber. He's already confessed to the murder of Tracy Kostakos, the club's rising star. But two years after the crime, Tracy's body is still missing and Bobby's confession is full of holes. 

All Souls Legal Cooperative's final appeal sends San Francisco's #1 P.I. Sharon McCone behind the footlights into the super-charged arena of anxious club owners and aspiring young hopefuls...into the fractured world of Tracy's privileged family and the mind of a young comedienne who was not the good little girl they thought they knew...into a labyrinth of death and deception where someone will kill to laugh last and get away with murder.

From the Dustjacket

Private eye Sharon McCone is enlisted into a case that had made lurid headlines ten years earlier: it was then that Bobby Foster, ex-crack-addict and parking valet at the trendy Cafe Comedie, confessed to the kidnapping and murder of young stand-up comic Tracy Kostakos.

Foster’s lawyer at the All Souls Legal Cooperative thinks that the real story didn’t come out at the trial. After all, the body was never found.

Assigned to dig up additional facts, Sharon finds that Kostakos’s co-comics had been strangely silent during the investigation. Was Tracy really the “good girl” her parents thought? And weren’t the socially aware real estate developers who own the club just a bit too smooth?

Sharon’s quiet investigation into the hip stand-up comedian subculture soon leads to explosive revelations about the darker side of comedy.

Review of The Shape of Dread

The 9th book in the Sharon McCone series presents a complex case that takes her into the world of entertainment, stand-up comedy to be precise. This is a more complex story than previous entries in the series, drawing on the hidden darkness within the lighter facade of human nature.

Bobby Foster is on death row for the kidnapping and murder of stand-up comedian Tracy Kostakos. Sharon McCone has been sent in to meet the prisoner on behalf of the All Souls Legal Cooperative to try to ascertain the truth behind the case. Her initial impression, after going through the case transcripts, is that there are gaps in his story, he may have confessed to the murder but it appears he was lying. Why would he do that?

Then there’s the fact that Kostakos’ body was never found.

When McCone really starts to dig into the case she comes across a range of friends, acquaintances and fellow comedians who each, in their own way, have reason to dislike the murdered woman.

Not only that, it turns out that Tracy Kostakos was a particularly ruthless character who would let nothing get in her way in her drive for success. Her brand of humor was executed at the expense of her friends, so much so that McCone adds suspects to the list of alternatives to Foster.

The plot becomes complicated and involved, so much so that even McCone becomes weary of it. There was definitely a point while I was reading where I had to question why I should care when the main character had all but given up.

The development of the recurring characters continues to enrich the McCone world. Her fellow All-Souls employees are becoming deeper and more fully formed as the series progresses. They serve to help us understand McCone even better with real-life challenges that we can relate to.

One the other hand, the characters vital to the plot in this particular book are consistently shallow and unlikable. Perhaps it was a conscious effort to paint everyone who came in contact with the victim in a poor light. 

The book earned Marcia Muller her first nomination for a Shamus Award for the 1990 Best PI Novel. The award was won that year by Extenuating Circumstances by Jonathan Valin. Muller’s other Shamus Award nominations have been Where Echoes Live (1992), Wolf In the Shadows (1994), Listen To the Silence (2001), Vanishing Point (2007) and then her win with Locked In (2010).

Other Reviews

Narrator Reviews and Audio Books

Jack Stewart, All Souls criminal lawyer, asks Sharon McCone to look over a case he is doing an appeal for. Bobby Foster a twenty year old black man is in San Quintin, facing the death penalty for murder. Jack has some reservations and believes Bobby, who swears he did not kill Stacy Kostakos… - Read Full Review

GoodReads Reviews

I really liked the story of this one. A young man on death row, convicted of killing an up-and-coming comedienne - even though her body was never found. Sharon is working with the lawyer on the appeal's process and soon finds out about the darker side of the victim through her "friends," family and colleagues… - Read All Reviews

At the time of writing there are 34 reviews posted to the GoodReads website for an average of 3.9/5 stars. You can read these reviews by visiting the GoodReads website.

Other Shamus Best PI Novel nominees - 1990

Extenuating Circumstances


Jonathan Valin

*** winner ***

Out On the Cutting Edge


Lawrence Block

The Skintight Shroud


Wayne D. Dundee

The Killing Man


Mickey Spillane