Review

Schemers: A Nameless Detective Novel

by Bill Pronzini

Back in 1969 Bill Pronzini wrote a short story featuring a San
Francisco private eye whose name we were never given. Forty years
and 35 novels later, he is still in San Francisco and still
nameless, except for his first name, which leaked out several books
ago and appears about once or twice per novel now.

Pronzini is not as well known as some of his mystery colleagues
who dominate the bestseller lists. But for those of us who write
mysteries and love mysteries, we know that Pronzini is a must read.
He is one of the genre’s greatest practitioners. In total, he
has written over 60 novels and last year was named a Grand Master
by the Mystery Writers of America. Pronzini richly deserved the
honor.

SCHEMERS, the latest entry in the Nameless series, will not
disappoint either longtime fans or new readers. In it, Nameless
encounters the puzzle that writers have enjoyed playing with for
decades: the locked door mystery. It is a locked door mystery about
mysteries in which eight first-edition mystery novels have been
stolen from a rich man’s library and the insurance claim for
them is a half-million dollars. The insurance company calls in
Nameless to investigate. But the library is double locked, and the
key is always with the owner. Suspects soon appear.

When the series started, Pronzini was obviously paying homage to
the true grand master, Dashiell Hammett, who also wrote a series
about a nameless San Francisco private eye, the Continental Op. But
the Op did not occupy 35 books. What is really amazing is that
Pronzini managed to keep Nameless’s moniker hidden for so
many books. Try writing a first person novel without using a name
if you think that is easy. And if you do not closely read SCHEMERS,
you will still miss his name.

But as time has gone by, Nameless has evolved to become the
Everyman. He has his own place among the great fictional detectives
and has aged in real time. Now he is semi-retired and has a young
field operative, Jake Runyon, as well as a computer wizard, Tamara,
to run his agency.

Pronzini has injected life and youth into the series, and now
every Nameless novel actually brings us two investigations, since
Nameless and Jake work separate cases.

In SCHEMERS, Jake is dealing with a mysterious stalker who is
menacing two successful brothers. The stalker begins by desecrating
the grave and remains of their father with acid, leaving behind the
sign: “This is just the beginning.” And things get
worse as their property is attacked with acid, and one brother is
beaten and sent to the hospital. Jake must solve the case before
somebody gets killed.

Any novel by Pronzini is a great read. But the genius of this
series is that it is character driven. You like these people and
want to read about them. The series deals with dark matters without
being dark. Pronzini is excellent at writing noir, but you
don’t find much of it in the Nameless books. His noir work is
in his other novels, such as last year’s THE OTHER SIDE OF
SILENCE.

Many years ago, early in my study of the genre, I learned that
hard-boiled novels are ones in which the bodies pile up as the
pages fly by. By that standard, SCHEMERS is not particularly
hard-boiled. Nor are the Nameless stories especially violent by
today’s standards. Nameless says at one point:
“I’m not big on guns, even though --- or maybe because
--- I own one and have had occasion to use it more than
once…The hunter gene was left out of me. I like blood sports
even less than guns.”

But what you do get in abundance is a well-plotted mystery with
plenty of clues and false leads. As Nameless says of his locked
room case: “There was nothing to catch hold of, to follow
through to a definite conclusion. One big confusing, tangle of
possibilities, half truths, lies, secrets.”

This makes SCHEMERS and all the Nameless novels fun to read. The
reader gets to follow along with the detectives, glancing over
their shoulder as they run their investigation step by step. And
unlike other detective stories, our hero does not have to get
knocked on the head and the story does not have to climax in a gun
battle. Instead there will be a point where the old reliables ---
method, opportunity and motive --- come into play and the natural
order is restored, if slightly altered.

Nameless --- you probably guessed by now you are not getting his
name out of me --- faces the issue of the passing of time and its
impact upon him. He says: “There were times when the chaotic,
permissive new world we lived in seemed a little too much for a man
of my old-school sensibilities. Inexplicable, too, in so many ways.
Not to mention infuriating and depressing when the larger issues
--- insupportable wars, terrorism, rampant political chicanery,
global warming, vicious anti-gay and anti-immigrant sentiments ---
came into play. It worried me sometimes, how out of touch and
inadequate the modern world made me feel. Born a generation too
late, past my prime, and too old and set in my ways to make the
necessary adaptations to connect with the ever-growing mess of
changes and challenges.”

Writing like this is the final reason why this is one of the
greatest mystery series of all time. At the end of each Nameless
story, you find yourself looking forward to the next adventure.
Let’s hope there are many more. SCHEMERS is a great
introduction to the work of Bill Pronzini. But a warning: read it
and you will want to get your hands on all 34 previous Nameless
novels.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 23, 2011

Schemers: A Nameless Detective Novel
by Bill Pronzini

  • Publication Date: March 31, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Forge Books
  • ISBN-10: 0765318199
  • ISBN-13: 9780765318190