The Other Side of Silence
In May 2008, the Mystery Writers of America gave their Grand
Master Award to Bill Pronzini. And while he might not be as well
known to the general public as such mystery writers as Robert B.
Parker and Michael Connelly, fans of the genre know that Pronzini
richly deserves the recognition. Since 1971, he has written over 70
novels, including 33 detective stories featuring the
“Nameless” San Francisco investigator modeled after
Dashiell Hammett’s “Continental Op.” THE OTHER
SIDE OF SILENCE is his latest stand-alone mystery. And, as true
mystery lovers know, any book by Pronzini is well worth the
Rick Fallon is going through a mid-life crisis when the novel
opens. His wife has left him a few years after their only child, a
boy, died in an accident. So he retreats to the desert for a few
weeks of camping and hiking so that he can “narrow it
down.” Pronzini writes, “The Valley was a place made
for loners. You could share it only with someone who viewed it with
the same perspective --- not as the countless miles of coarse dead
landscape but as a starkly beautiful wilderness teeming with life.
To him, it seemed almost sentient, as if deep within its ancient
rock was something that approximated a soul.”
And indeed, in this novel the desert is a character, the
opposite of what Pronzini describes as “traffic clogged
freeways, urban blight, random violence…and all the other by
products of what was laughingly called modern civilization: global
warming, Nine-Eleven and the looming threat of terrorism, the
stupid Iraq War.”
On the second day of his trip he finds an abandoned Toyota Camry
containing a woman’s purse and a note that reads “I
can’t go on anymore. There’s no hope left…”
Fallon soon finds 32-year-old Casey Dunbar at the bottom of a
nearby wash, dehydrated, blistered by the merciless sun and close
to death. He saves her and soon learns she was beaten, robbed and
raped as she sought to get back her eight-year-old son who was
kidnapped four months earlier by her ex-husband.
So begins our descent into this sun-bleached noir world. Stirred
by the picture of Casey’s son, Fallon is reminded of his own
lost child. He agrees to help Casey find the boy. And, just as with
all noir stories, few things are what they seem here and perception
is turned upside down and distorted, much as the great Orson Welles
did in the famous funhouse mirror scene in the classic film noir
The Lady from Shanghai. So Fallon travels from the safety
and silence of the desert wilderness to the truly dangerous human
wilderness of urban civilization. Pronzini writes:
“Fallon had always thought of Vegas as a massive,
amoeba-like creature slowly inching its way across the flat desert
plane, absorbing more and more of it in little nibbling bites. No
head or tail, no intelligence, its only purpose to grow larger,
fatter, like the others of its kind that had covered the Los
Angeles basin and the Phoenix area and were now swallowing parts of
the Mojave desert…Worse of all was the noise it generated.
Growls, snarls, howls, roars, siren shrieks and all the other
sounds that came from its writhing bowels in a throbbing,
never-ending din.” What we call civilization is simply the
other side of silence.
Pronzini won’t be getting a job writing for the Chamber of
Commerce anytime soon, but he doesn’t need one. He is a truly
great mystery writer, an artist at building suspense.
Fallon is a former military MP and now works in security for a
pharmaceuticals firm. He is a standup guy. But soon he is breaking
laws and withholding information from the police to help Casey.
From Glitter Gulch to casino piano lounges, he wanders through a
noisy, congested nightmare underworld. About one western-styled
casino, Pronzini writes, “The soft pile carpeting and leather
chairs spoiled the effect, but that was Vegas for you: all
illusion, but none of it quite what it was intended to be.
Elaborate, ornate, and phony as hell.”
Pronzini is a master stylist. Not only does he present here a
great plot with plenty of twists to keep you off balance and
guessing, but his true brilliance as a writer is in developing
character. Fallon is the ultimate Good Samaritan, simply looking
“to rebuild another future.” We can’t help but
root for him to get back to the healing silence of the desert.
THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE is a mystery that, while acknowledging
the darkness, never succumbs to it. If you haven’t read
Pronzini before, you are in for a treat. Start with this one and
then go back and find as many of his books that you can get your
hands on. You will not be disappointed.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 14, 2011