Strangers by Bill Pronzini
For those of you who enjoy adding another notch to your reading gun, Strangers by Bill Pronzini (Tor-Forge, 2014), is the forty-first book in the series featuring the Nameless Detective (remembering, of course, that we now know him to be called Bill — not so nameless after all). This time, we find our heroic ex-cop and now PI has left his wife Kerry to continue her slow rehabilitation from the PTSD. After receiving a blast from the past and somewhat against his better judgement, he’s off to Mineral Springs, a small mining town that’s surviving but hardly ever going to feature on America’s most welcoming holiday destination lists. The source of this blast was Cheryl Rosmond (now going by her married name Hatcher). To fill in a little of the backstory, they had a relationship twenty years ago when Bill was a serving police officer. In those days, Bill was an even more hardline by-the-book individual and, as the regulations required, he passed on the good news that her brother Doug was a murderer. Said Doug committed suicide and Cheryl left him. You may wonder why she would contact him twenty years later. Even more, you may wonder why he should react by leaving immediately. The problem is Cheryl’s son, Cody. No! Let me stop here. This is not some good seed run bad. Although they had a sexual relationship, this is not Bill’s secret love child now grown up. Yet when a desperate mother calls out for his help, some measure of guilt sends him out to the car and the long drive to Nevada. This boy has been charged with committing three vicious rapes and needs help. Cheryl has no money and no-one else with the right level of expertise she can turn to.
When he arrives, he discovers that the reputation of mother and son could not be any lower. Her husband died of a heart attack four years ago and she has to work all hours as a waitress to cover living expenses. The son’s attitude has not made him any friends and he’s been unemployed for about six months. As far as the police and local DA are concerned, they have their man. Although the DNA results are in a long queue, they don’t feel they need wait for confirmatory evidence. He was seen in the area, he has no alibi, and both a ski-mask and bloodstained knife were found in his Jeep. Indeed, the entire neighbourhood is convinced the nineteen-year-old is guilty and a small campaign is in progress to drive the mother out of town as well. This is small-town America and there’s no compassion or forgiveness on display anywhere. The only people who seem to doubt Cody’s guilt are a girlfriend and the sheriff’s young nephew who was a fair-weather friend (when his disapproving parents were looking the other way). Needless to say, once Bill announces his mission in town, he rapidly acquires a fan club intent on encouraging him to take his unwanted carcass back where it came from.
What makes the resulting investigation so satisfying is the confrontation between stubborn professionalism and a prejudiced township saddened they stopped lynching young men like Cody as soon as they were satisfied of his guilt. As our not-easily-deterred investigator moves forward, chinks of light emerge. After talking with one of the rape victims, there may even be circumstantial evidence confirming Cody’s innocence. But, in default of DNA exoneration, probable cause for doubting guilt is not going to fly. As PI novels go, this strays rather pleasingly into noir territory as the small town’s secrets prove to be just as dark as those found in the bigger cities. I’ll leave it to you to read and so discover whether Cody is guilty. Needless to say, there must also be a resolution of the hanging thread of relationship between Bill and his ex. This proves rather sad as, for reasons which emerge during the course of the book, Cheryl is somewhat more dysfunctional that we might have suspected. The outcome is Bill’s departure from the town. This is necessary so the serial can proceed. You’ll have to decide whether you think the realism of the result hits the mark. I think it does, making this one of the better books in the serial for some time.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.