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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.

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes

November 19, 2011 Leave a comment

It was a close-run decision whether to continue watching but, as it turned out, The Moving Finger was the best of the series so far. Although this is not saying much, given the awfulness that has gone before, there was just enough encouragement. You can always hope you have the worst behind you. . . Anyway, this has Geraldine McEwan’s Marple rather more in the background, wandering around, often looking a bit dotty, but able to make pithy remarks of substance every now and again to show her brain is still working. The primary point of view falls to Jerry Burton (James D’Arcy) who failed to end it all on his motorbike (instead of crashing his plane in the original novel). I suppose it does give him more to chew on as he recovers both physically and emotionally in the backwater village of Lymstock. The casting of Ken Russell and Francis de la Tour as the Calthrops is faintly hilarious, but everyone else, surprisingly including Harry Enfield as the prissy solicitor, is held back. Although they are all caricatures, this village is not quite a jarring as some of the others we’ve been exposed to. I could have done without the knowing opening sequence showing the arrival of the Burtons in their red sportscar, but this script sat back and allowed the story to unfold at a steady pace. The trap for the murderer is all you would expect, but I can’t say as I like the staged suicide. The safety of all involved depends on the killer coming up with something not immediately fatal, so this scenario is all a bit contrived to let everyone emerge unscathed. Nevertheless, it’s reasonably enjoyable.

Jerry Burton dressed for dinner

And now a moment of reflection. Until a few years ago, I used to go to the RSC’s latest interpretations of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. There’s always something interesting to watch as different productions with different actors can bring out unexpected subtleties. The words themselves never change too much (although there was a very famous musical created out of Comedy of Errors where there were more substantial changes), but the entertainment experience can be very different. So when we come to a new set of adaptations of Miss Marple novels, there’s a chance for new light to shine on the usually clever plots. All of which brings me to the Sittaford Mystery. Frankly, at times, I thought I was watching a television version of The Mousetrap as a group of people, caught in the same place by heavy snow, try to work out who the killer is. Except this is neither the titular mystery nor the stage play. It’s just a travesty. I cannot recall ever seeing such a botched adaptation. This may not be one of Christie’s best books, but it deserves better than this. All I will say is that, while it may not be a bad idea to insert Miss Marple into this particular story, there’s absolutely no need to invent all this backstory about Egypt and trotting out Robert Hardy to do his Churchill impression is laughable. The whole proceeds at a funerial pace, delaying the important séance far too long and then producing a different murderer at the end. I suppose the murder only comes after an hour because Timothy Dalton was cast as the victim. Had it been anyone less prestigious, we could have killed him in the first few scenes and made progress with the plot. This adaptation is not entertaining in its own right nor is it in any way faithful to the Christie original.

Timothy Dalton looking Prime Minister material

All of which brings us to Nemesis. I have no great brief to defend the novel. Being the last Miss Marple novel and one of the last books she wrote before dying, it’s rather plodding in execution although the idea is up to the usual Agatha Christie standard. But the slowness of the novel is not an excuse to substantially rewrite the plot. I suppose if I came to the television adaptation not knowing anything about the original, it would seem quite a clever idea to maroon everyone on a tour bus. That said, the pace of the story on screen is turgid and the last act in the convent the worst kind of melodrama. As an adaptation, I can see absolutely no justification for radically changing the plot to omit one murder and change everything about the motivation for the original death, to convert Clotilde (Amanda Burton) and Anthea (now renamed Sister Agnes and played by Anne Reid) into nuns, to introduce Miss Marple’s nephew, Raymond West (Richard E Grant), to no good purpose and to omit Professor Wanstead who was important in resolving the crime in the novel.

Geraldine McEwan and Anne Reid trying to spot the murderer

I have to say I cannot imagine anyone less like the original Nemesis than Geraldine McEwan. She’s there with a twinkle in her eye and a slightly dotty look, completely unlike the spirit of divine retribution who’s supposed to have been remorseless in delivering just deserts (whether they were wanted or not). For this adaptation to work, we have to be prepared to believe the dead millionaire essentially did all the detective work before he died and could then persuade everyone implicated to turn up for the tour. His problem was that he didn’t have any actual evidence as to whodunnit and so must rely on Miss Maple to produce the confession. In neither case is this convincing. If there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to suggest a crime had been committed, no sane millionaire would rely on a person as portrayed by Geraldine McEwan to complete the investigation. Her decision to include the philandering and blocked author as her sidekick says it all. Neither one of them can cut the mustard, even if he was in the library with the candlestick.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

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