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Strangers by Bill Pronzini

November 5, 2014 4 comments

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.

Bill Pronzini looking pretty fly for an older guy

Bill Pronzini looking pretty fly for an older guy

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.

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

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

Nemesis by Bill Pronzini

August 11, 2013 2 comments

bill-pronzini-nemesis

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.

Hellbox by Bill Pronzini

September 23, 2012 1 comment

In the publishing game, one of the great imponderables for an author is how to preserve the cash flow when the major publishing houses are reluctant to depart from their usual production schedule, i.e. one hardback original every year with mass market paperbacks filling in the gaps as and when the publishers have maximised their take from the higher units costs of the hardback. The answer as demonstrated by Bill Pronzini is to keep switching genres, write with other authors as a team, and adopt pseudonyms. That way, you can keep the flow of books coming thick and fast. For those of you who like numbers, this is the thirty-ninth novel in the series featuring Bill, the Nameless Detective. Not bad really since we’re not also counting the multiple short stories.

Bill Pronzini looking pretty fly for an older guy

Hellbox (Tor-Forge, 2012), the latest contribution, sees the hero’s desire to migrate slowly from activity to the inactivity of retirement interrupted. Nameless and Kerry are looking for a second home. This is not a retirement home as such, but one that’s far enough away from the office Bill might actually start giving up his desire to work. They settle on a cabin just outside Six Pines: one of these small towns up in the Sierra foothills. To get a feel for the location and the people of the area, they rent the cabin for a few days. Unfortunately, this puts Kerry in the wrong place at the wrong time as she goes walking around the forest to get her bearings. This takes us into a kidnapping situation. A killer on a revenge mission keeps the witness on ice until he can complete the job. This gives Nameless and Jake Runyon time to start running a search on the ground. Tamara works from the office, digging out information from computer records and our seasoned pros get on the trail.

With the point of view shifting between the killer, Kerry, Nameless and Jake, we get to see all sides of this problem and how it may be solved. The result is a solid, entertaining read. It has no pretensions. The prose is slick and highly readable. The narrative is stripped down to its essentials so we positively charge through the plot as our killer’s ambition for revenge escalates. It all comes down to Jake asking the right questions. Bill’s emotions are getting in the way and he’s not at his best. The result is a highly professional PI novel with the detective having a very personal stake in the outcome. I find it slightly unoriginal and a little flat, but Hellbox is a good way of continuing the story of the Nameless Detective, his wife and the other characters.

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

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

Camouflage by Bill Pronzini

July 25, 2011 1 comment

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.

Bill Pronzini, black and white and read all over the world

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.

For review of other books by Bill Pronzini, see:
Hellbox
Nemesis
Strangers.

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

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