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Nemesis by Bill Pronzini

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Sixteen books and what do you get, another year older and another Nameless Detective book. Actually this is wrong. Nemesis by Bill Pronzini (Tor-Forge, 2013) is the fortieth book in the series which, when you think about it, is quite a record. Although there are longer series, this is proving to be an enduring favourite. If you had to ask why, it would be because the broader narrative arc of the main series characters sustains interest alongside the individual crimes to be investigated. So this time, we’re continuing where the last book left off. Our first-person narrator is trying to help his wife Kerry through the post-traumatic stress disorder following her experience in the last book. Obviously when anyone is in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. The fight or flight mechanism is genetically encoded in all the major species. It’s an essential part of the survival mechanism. But sometimes the experience is too much for the individual and it damages the fight or flight reaction. Victims feel stressed even though there’s no objective danger. The memory of the fear refuses to dissipate. There are flashbacks and bad dreams. The waking day is troubled by thoughts of what terrible things might happen. This leads to avoidance behaviour and a sense of emotional numbness. Kerry’s diagnosis is endlessly confirmed but the talk therapy proves ineffective. Although our hero is not exactly unhappy to be trapped into de facto retirement and a caring role, he and his daughter worry Kerry is becoming dependent on them. Nevertheless, for the first third of the book, our hero is left at home.

Bill Pronzini looking pretty fly for an older guy

Bill Pronzini looking pretty fly for an older guy

Tamara sends Jake Runyon out to see a new client. The brief is simple. Demands for money have been made. This may be blackmail or extortion but the client refuses to go to the police. She explains she’s had a bad experience and no longer trusts them. There are worrying signs but Jake stays very professional and guides her through the process of what prove to be two abortive meets with the extortionist. Jake and Tamara become increasingly suspicious and find endless inconsistencies in their client’s account of her past. When she tries to seduce Jake and he turns her down flat, she physically attacks him. After he has left, she reports him to the police for attempted rape. In due course the client sues Jake personally and the detective agency. While Jake is out on bail, the client is murdered and her body found in a nearby lake. In her hand is a button torn from one of Jake’s suits. Now he’s rearrested and charged with murder. This forces our hero to leave Kerry behind and take control of the investigation to clear Jake’s good name. It’s not that Kerry loses out in any way. Even she acknowledges the need for her husband to go back to work. Rationality prevails at the key moment and while our hero is away, there are actually signs Kerry may be reasserting some control over her life. This is positive and encouraging news.

The core of the book relies on the credibility of the client as a character. This is the ironically named Verity Daniels. As the plot unfolds, she’s shown to suffer from Constitutional Psychopathic Inferiority, i.e. she’s addicted to lying, constructing elaborate fantasies and then acting them out. Indeed, anything approaching the truth makes her uncomfortable. She sees deceit as a way of suppressing unhappy or painful memories. Obviously Jake experiences this first-hand but, when it comes to an investigation of her past, she has left others in her wake with motives to hate her and potentially want her dead. It’s from this investigation that the list of suspects is drawn. As first Jake and then our hero talk with these people, a detailed picture of the client emerges. It’s not intended to be a pretty sight. However, through this detailed picture and an analysis of the fantasy that immediately involved Jake, our hero is able to understand who would actually kill her. In the final confrontation, the motive is also confirmed. With the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, this is very pleasingly constructed. The key facts are very fairly left out for everyone to see. It’s just a case of overcoming prejudices and understanding the way in which this woman’s mind worked.

Because this has better characterisation and is closer to a puzzle PI novel than a straight thriller, I find Nemesis more satisfying than the last two in the series. This is not taking anything away from those two books. It simply reflects my preference for a good puzzle, nicely set up, and solved with panache.

For reviews of other novels by Bill Pronzini, see:
Camouflage
Hellbox
Strangers.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. janet ross
    December 19, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    his wife’s name is KERRY not Karen

    • December 19, 2013 at 11:34 pm

      Many thanks for pointing it out. Once I get a factual bee in my bonnet, it gets repeated and is not picked up in the copy editing. I’ve corrected it here. Fortunately, I got the name right in the review of Hellbox and neglected to mention her by name in Camouflage.

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