Strangers: A Nameless Detective Novel
When Bill Pronzini started a mystery series about a nameless San Francisco detective in 1971, he was paying homage to Dashiell Hammett. He probably never imagined the series would last over four decades.
STRANGERS is the latest Nameless adventure --- the 43rd book featuring the SF detective --- and it has all the elements that make this such an excellent and beloved series. For longtime readers, it is a bit of a throwback in that Nameless, who we learned many years ago has a name (Bill), works the difficult case alone.
Pronzini allowed his hero to age in real time, and few of us are now what we were in 1971, sadly. So, in recent years, as Bill supposedly semi-retires, these books have followed a triple-subject format, as cases were worked by Bill; his computer-savvy office manager, Tamara Corbin, and younger field operative Jake Runyon.
"STRANGERS is a terrific read that both longtime fans and newcomers will enjoy. Pronzini is still at the top of his game. May he keep writing a Nameless novel a year for long into the future."
But when Bill gets a call from a woman he loved decades ago telling him that her son has been accused of three rapes, he has no choice but to go. Alone. What readers love about this series is the character of Bill and his iron-clad professional code. Pronzini writes as Bill: “My profession, bottom line, is helping people in trouble. It is not a job for me; even now, semiretired and tilting toward geezerhood, it’s what I live for.”
So he embarks on the 450-mile drive to the mining town of Mineral Springs, Nevada, to see his old flame and one of the three loves of his life, Cheryl Rosmond. Pronzini writes, “What had been and had almost been between us belonged to a part of my life that seemed so remote now it was as if someone else had lived it.”
He walks into a town that Dashiell Hammett, author of the classic Continental Op novel RED HARVEST, would appreciate as a surrogate for hell. On his first visit to Cheryl, somebody throws a rock through her kitchen window and sets her storage shed on fire. Pronzini describes Bill’s first encounter with her: “Seeing her again had been difficult after all. Not because of any lingering personal feelings, but because of what she was now --- hurt, lost, afraid, edging towards the end of hope.”
The case against Cody is largely circumstantial, but virtually everybody in the tiny desert town thinks he is guilty. They soon come to direct their hostility at the big city outsider trying to get a serial rapist off. Bill sees it as part of his job to be thorough and stir things up. Part of the pleasure of this series is following Bill along and seeing him persevere despite the doors being slammed in his face.
Pronzini, who has won just about all the awards a mystery writer can, is a master craftsman, and his narrative structure is a brilliant technique that allows readers to learn what he does exactly as he learns it. And the more Bill pulls at strings, the more he finds out about the dirty underbelly of the town, including drugs, a burglary ring, and a dangerous and highly armed “desert rat” survivalist living in an abandoned ghost town. At one point he says, exasperated, “Christ, what a town this was.” That is about as emotional as he gets.
Remarkable in this day and age, the Nameless series is not big on gore, and violence and bloodshed are kept to a minimum. But this is a great noir series because solving the case is almost secondary in noir. The real issue is the darkness inside not just the bad guys --- you expect that --- but also among the people you go into the story expecting to root for. As its French name indicates, that darkness is all around us. No matter how much we expect good to triumph --- in noir, as in real life --- it is not certain that it will at all.
Nameless tries to do something to drive away the darkness that scars and sears the soul. He is a good man and a great investigator at breaking cases, but that does not assure a happy ending. “There is nothing more to say. I’ll be going,” he simply says on the final page, and that is probably the most terrifying words in the book. And then he follows it with: “I would never look back this way again.” And in noir, that is sometimes all there is. You do your best and then try to save yourself.
STRANGERS is a terrific read that both longtime fans and newcomers will enjoy. Pronzini is still at the top of his game. May he keep writing a Nameless novel a year for long into the future.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on July 25, 2014