Bill Pronzini has won every award a mystery author can win and deservedly so. He is such a graceful, seamless writer that you can miss a few entries of his most famous series featuring the Nameless detective, but then pick up his latest novel and fall right back into loving it. NEMESISis the 37th installment in the series, which also includes three short story collections and a few novellas. While Nameless might be aging with the rest of us, Pronzini is still at the top of his game.
Nameless, a San Francisco detective, first appeared in 1971’s THE SNATCH. Pronzini was obviously paying tribute to another San Francisco writer and the father of noir fiction, Dashiell Hammett, who wrote short stories for Black Mask magazine featuring a nameless “Continental Op” detective. Try writing over three-dozen novels about a lead character in the first person without ever once using a name, and you will see how impossible that is. So long ago, fans of the Pronzini series found out that the ace detective’s name is Bill, but as far as I can tell, there is still no last name.
It doesn’t matter. The series works because of Pronzini’s great writing ability. But it also works because Nameless is such a well-rounded, fully developed character that we cannot help but enjoy spending time with him. Like the rest of us, he has aged in real time, so he is no superhero like Robert B. Parker’s ageless Spenser. As Bill has grown older, the series cast has expanded to include his partner in the agency --- computer whiz Tamara, a young, sassy African-American woman, and damaged investigator Jake Runyon, who is a younger version of Nameless. Each book now is told in three parts from the point of view of each of them, with Tamara and Jake in the third person.
"NEMESIS is a great, exciting read. Reading it is like visiting with an old friend. It’s the perfect book to take to the beach or on vacation if you are lucky enough to have one this year. It whet my appetite to go back and find the installments that I missed."
Another great thing about the series is that, as in real life, people can be damaged and violence takes a toll. Pronzini writes dark noir with the best of them. NEMESISbegins during what Bill calls “Difficult times, painful times.” He is still dealing with the aftermath of his wife Kerry being abducted and held for four days in the Sierra foothills, which was the plot of last year’s HELLBOX. It is now a few months later and Kerry is still suffering “profound” psychological damage. Pronzini writes, “…her emotions were as raw and festering as flesh exposed beneath flayed skin.”
So Bill, who had been working part time at the agency for the past several years, is not working at all as this story begins and is devoting all his time to his wife’s recovery. But he admits that he just might be finished as a detective. Pronzini writes: “I’d lost some of my resilience and determination up there (rescuing Kerry), too.” Events will soon test that statement.
The case involves a woman who came into money recently. Verity Daniels (a truly great fictional name) claims that somebody is threatening her to extort money. Jake Runyon is soon on the case, but Verity proves to be a client unlike any he has ever encountered before. Holes quickly start appearing in her story, and there is a “funny undercurrent in her voice” that he notices. And she inappropriately comes on to him. He soon determines that she is a liar and very well might be crazy. He wants to dump the case, but what if she really is in trouble?
Despite his own personal problems stemming from the death of his beloved wife and estrangement from his son, Jake is a man of high integrity. He tries to do the right thing by Verity. Big mistake. Soon he is accused of a crime he did not commit, and the agency faces a massive civil lawsuit. Then things go from bad to very bad, forcing Bill out of his hiatus. Once again, he has to race into the center of danger for his typically noble reasons.
Pronzini’s genius is that in Nameless he has created the detective as Everyman. It’s fun to watch Bill struggle with cell phones and the tools of the modern world. Although written long before recent events, Pronzini includes a passage that could be ripped from today’s headlines as Nameless muses about the Internet:
“The modern equivalent of Orwell’s Big Brother, with the only difference being that anybody can access the vast storehouses of accumulated information. There’s no privacy anymore…It’s a boon to our profession, sure…but at times it makes me a little nervous about the future. And I find myself thinking of a Fredric Brown vignette I’d read once, in which all the cybernetic machines on all the populated planets in the universe are linked together to form a single super computer. The first question it’s asked is the age old one: Is there a God? And the super computer answers: Yes, now there is…”
NEMESIS is a great, exciting read. Reading it is like visiting with an old friend. It’s the perfect book to take to the beach or on vacation if you are lucky enough to have one this year. It whet my appetite to go back and find the installments that I missed. As readers and fans, we have witnessed and enjoyed over the years one of the greatest accomplishments ever written by any mystery writer. Let’s hope that Pronzini can keep Nameless going long into the future.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on July 26, 2013