Camouflage by Bill Pronzini
Camouflage by Bill Pronzini is the thirty-eighth in the Nameless Detective series. My excuse for not realising there were quite so many is that I don’t read as much detective and mystery as I should. Sadly, I’ve only read a couple in this series and that was some decades ago. Strange how fast time passes when you’re having fun. Anyway, back in those distant years, Pronzini was turning out finely crafted first-person PI novels with our hero something of a lone wolf. Now as the nameless investigator approaches the age when, perhaps, he ought to retire (again), he’s gathered a team. Tamara Corbin is more or less running the office with ex-cop Jake Runyon and Alex Chavez around to help out when needed. As a result of this expansion in the cast list, we have separate POV chapters for each character and two major plots to follow. Frankly, I’m slightly uncomfortable in switching between first- and third-person chapters, but it does at least play fair in allowing the other members of the investigative team their moments in the spotlight. I express no opinion on the merits of this change from the more linear earlier novels to this most recent format. All I will say is that it came as a little surprise.
There were moments in Camouflage that struck me as strange. Bill Pronzini seems to insert political and social commentaries, as in talking about the right-wing shock-jocks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does come over as being slightly preachy. Then there’s the PI’s surprise when the client’s reason for wanting to track down his ex-wives is to get their co-operation to annul their marriages. In fact, this is so standard for enabling remarriage in the Catholic church, I can’t imagine anyone failing to be aware of it, particularly if they are in the PI business. There’s also a real difference in procedure as against the rest of the world where the quasi-judicial proceedings to determine whether the original marriages can be annulled only take place when the evidence has been collected from the wives and any other relevant witnesses. This case seems to be proceeding on the basis that an annulment has been granted conditionally on the ex-wife signing some kind of declaration. As I say, it’s all most strange to a foreigner but, assuming this is procedurally accurate for the US, completely irrelevant to thinking about the quality of this novel.
We’ve got two basic plots running in parallel. The first looks to be a simple case of tracking down an ex-wife yet, when the husband calls round to the address Tamara has found, he’s on his cell moments after leaving, denying this woman’s identity. As is required in stories like this, he disappears almost immediately afterwards, and our hero is instructed by the worried fiancée to help find him. Not unnaturally, this increasingly looks like a murder and, by the time we get to the end of this story arc, it’s all suitably bloodthirsty as our hero and Alex Chavez are forced to defend themselves. In the other thread, Jake Runyon is getting increasingly close to Bryn Darby and her young son, Bobby. Checking back through the summaries of the intervening novels, this relationship has been a slow burner for several novels and only now comes to the forefront. The trigger is what appears almost certain to be abuse. Bobby spends the week with his father, a family law attorney, and the weekends with his mother. I thought this difficult subject area was handled with considerable sensitivity and, although it’s all rather predictable, everyone emerges from these tragic events wiser than before.
There’s nothing particularly original about the crimes to be solved in Camouflage, but Bill Pronzini puts the package together with commendable skill. Whatever minor cavils one might have about some of the opinions expressed, the plot moves along at a good pace and resolves everything without any loose ends. Although I can understand the underlying character arcs are advancing from book to book in the series, I prefer slightly more characterisation in each book. This has a slightly perfunctory, if not mechanical, feel about it. Nevertheless, for those who like straight PI novels without strong-arm tactics and bullets flying everywhere, this is good of its kind.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.