Saturday, August 23, 2014

Strangers in the Night

The town of Mineral Springs, Nevada, is a 450-mile drive for the Nameless Detective. But when he got the call, he just couldn’t ignore it. An old flame of his, Cheryl Rosmond, is in trouble… or rather, her son Cody is in trouble. He’s been accused of a series of rapes, and the townspeople have decided he is guilty until proven innocent. As a result, the entire community has banded together against Cheryl, determined to make her life as miserable as possible, whether it be via nasty anonymous phone calls or through acts of vandalism. Desperate, Cheryl turned to Nameless, whom she hasn’t seen in a very, very long time. After consulting with his wife Kerry, he makes the drive to help an old friend…

Unfortunately, it seems the entire community is determined to make his investigation as difficult as possible. Although the local sheriff allows him to carry out an unofficial investigation, so long as he doesn’t push it too far, Nameless has no official standing in Nevada, a California’s PI license being completely useless here. With barely any internet access, all Nameless has are his wits, and he must put those to good use if he is to prove Cody’s innocence.

This is the plot of Strangers, the latest Nameless Detective novel by Bill Pronzini. Pronzini is one of the few authors whose work I’m sure to keep up with, especially the Nameless series, having bought the newest one every year for a few years now. This is number 43 in the series. Back in 1971, when Pronzini published The Snatch, I don’t know if he ever imagined that this series would last so long. But he’s done a fantastic job keeping the series fresh and interesting. Nameless has lost some friends who were big parts of the early series; he’s gained a wife and adopted a child, and he’s now semi-retired. The last few entries in the series have been told from different perspectives, focusing on the cases Nameless and his partners are investigating. Nameless is the only one doing first-person narration, but it’s amazing just how much the series has changed despite being about the same character.

Strangers is something of a throwback – it is the first Nameless novel in a while told entirely from Nameless’ point of view. And because he is isolated in Nevada, we never actually see his wife, child, or partners (though he alludes to them). And it is great reading. Last year, when I reviewed Nemesis, I called it “the best in the series since 2009’s Schemers”. I liked this entry even more.

The set-up makes Nameless almost as much of a Western hero as he is a PI, and he doesn’t disappoint. He goes around town rattling a few appropriate cages, but toeing the legal line to make sure he doesn’t get in trouble with the local law. But there are a few surprises. All the clichés demand that certain characters have to be villains, but Pronzini refuses to go down the easy road. Some supposedly-obvious villains turn out to be valued allies, and some superficially-friendly faces turn out to be hiding some very nasty secrets…

The most interesting aspect of the book, however, is the relationship between Nameless and Cheryl. This is absolutely beautiful stuff. Cheryl has appeared earlier in the series, in the second Nameless novel, The Vanished (which I recommend reading before reading this novel). And my, how things have changed. It’s a major theme of the book, how people you once thought you knew so well turn out to be strangers, and it is poignantly handled. I obviously don’t want to give too much away because of spoilers, but some of Nameless’ reflections are worth highlighting, underlining, and adding to the list of great reflections by private-eye characters in literature.

There is a classic trifecta among “hardboiled” writers. Almost everyone agrees that the great hardboiled writers were Dashiell Hammett, followed by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Many people would then add Robert B. Parker to the list as their successor… But for myself, I would give that title to Bill Pronzini. He has done something very few writers have managed – he has sustained a book series about the same character for over 40 years, yet he has evolved the series into something completely different from book #1. Pronzini is not mindlessly repeating himself or genre clichés – his writing is just as fresh and engaging as it was at the start of the series. Strangers is a downright brilliant addition to the Nameless Detective canon. It is a terrific read, and one of the most satisfying of the series.

3 comments:

  1. Great to know that Pronzini just keeps producing such great work - truly one of a kind! I might have to skip ahead to this one Patrick - cheers mate.

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  2. You read my mind, Patrick! I was planning on tackling a Pronzini or Muller novel next. Guess you made it a lot easier now.

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  3. I'm glad you folks enjoyed the review. Stay tuned for a follow up sometime in the next couple of weeks!

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