Bill Pronzini, award-winning author who has written across numerous genres, has been churning out top-notch fiction for over forty-five years. While many of his standalone novels are fantastic (my favorite of which is The Crimes of Jordan Wise, which I reviewed here many moons ago. Run out and read it now, if you haven’t already; crime fiction doesn’t come any better), Pronzini will be most remembered for his Nameless Detective series, which includes over fifty novels, novellas, and short stories to-date.
What is it about the series that has kept the storylines so fresh and exciting for readers after all these years? A surface-level view of the books would reveal a thrilling set of tales that keep people flipping the pages as they try to figure out whodunit. A more critical review leads me to the following conclusion: in a genre in which authors routinely write about detectives who are womanizers, alcoholics, law benders (and sometimes breakers), and brooding, gruff hard-asses, Pronzini has written these tales with as much honesty and realism as possible. Nameless is a good, hard-working detective, a throwback in the sense that he does not depend on gadgets and gizmos in his cases, but relies instead on talking to people, canvassing a scene, using his observation skills to track down clues and see through people’s B.S. While his cases sometimes lead to thrills, chases, and life-or-death situations, many times they’re as mundane as an outsider would expect. Perhaps the best way to sum him up is that he’s an average Joe, an everyman, and readers will undoubtedly feel they understand Nameless because, in a way, they could be him.
Many of the early books in the series have been out of print for years. But, with the advent of e-reading, they have all (affordably) come back into print, making it easier for newcomers to start from the beginning instead of jumping in mid-stream. That being said, don’t let the length of the series put you off from starting wherever you please; while some storylines and characters continue from book-to-book, Pronzini does a nice job of offering up small summaries along the way to keep new readers from being confused.
Within the last month or so, I’ve read four books in the series (a streak that will probably continue, as I’ve been enjoying my time with Nameless). What follows is a mini-review for each book:
Bindlestiff (Nameless #10)
Of the stories I’ve read to this point, Bindlestiff was my least favorite, if only because Nameless questioned a *bunch* of people and tried a *bunch* of avenues to locate a missing person, and for the most part, his efforts went nowhere (which, again, lends realism to the idea that P.I. work isn’t necessarily all adventure, all the time, but many spots were just too slow). That being said, the book contained perhaps the most unique method of murder and body removal that I’ve ever read, and one scene highlighted Pronzini’s ability to write panicked, claustrophobic scenes better than anyone I’ve ever come across. Obviously I know Nameless survives the tough spot he’s in – there wouldn’t be 30+ more novels if he didn’t – but the tension Pronzini creates is one of those proverbial edge-of-your-seat bits of writing that have to be read to be believed.
(4 out of 10)
[Case File, a book of short stories about the Nameless Detective, would fall after Bindlestiff, but I had already read it a couple years ago. It’s an excellent collection. I want to say I gave it a 7 or 8 out of 10 at the time I finished it.]
Quicksilver (Nameless #12)
Nameless is hired by a woman to figure out who has been sending her anonymous gifts and notes in the mail, not because the items have been threatening, but rather that they’ve become a nuisance she’d rather not deal with (especially when it comes to her jealous husband). After receiving a laundry list of names of men who had previous relationships with her, romantic or otherwise, Nameless sets about trying to find the person responsible for the harassment.
Upon entering a business to interview a person of interest, Nameless finds the location is unexpectedly empty…except for the chopped up body in one of the building’s offices. The macabre scene, which does not involve the person Nameless was there to see, brings about additional questions – who is the man who was murdered, and does he have anything to do with the case Nameless has been hired to solve?
Like Bindlestiff, this one involves a lot of canvassing locations and interviewing people; unlike Bindlestiff, Quicksilver doles out enough mystery, clues, and tension along the way to drive the story forward. Add in a backstory that deals with a sad, dark time in our country’s history, and you end up with a very good tale that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
(7 out of 10)
Nightshades (Nameless #13)
This installment of the series opens with Nameless being hired by an insurance company to look into the death of Munroe Randall, a real-estate mogul who died in a house fire. Because the policy was quite large, the company wants to make sure the death was truly accidental before paying out the money.
Despite the case coming at a time when Nameless was supposed to be leaving on a much-needed vacation with his girlfriend, Kerry, he takes the job, thinking they could make a small detour to check out the site of the fire and then be on their way to their vacation. Those plans quickly go out the window as Nameless discovers multiple people with motives for wanting Randall dead, from Randall’s two business partners who stand to receive money from the life-insurance policy (at a time when the company is over-extended and on the brink) to the sixteen denizens of Musket Creek, a small town that the real-estate company is trying to buy out in an attempt to revitalize the land in hopes of turning it into a tourist trap. Further investigating by both Nameless and Kerry reveals a bevy of additional secrets from all of the aforementioned parties, secrets that someone is willing to commit all manner of violence to keep buried in the shadows.
Nightshades is my favorite Nameless novel to-date. It is rife with twists, turns, and plenty o’ suspense, all of which made for one heck of a ride. It also brought Nameless’ girlfriend to the fore, which was a nice change of pace (to this point, she’s been more of a minor character). Last, it included some pretty biting humor, something that hasn’t been a part of the series to this point, yet had me chuckling quite a few times throughout. Overall, just a fantastic novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.
(9 out of 10)
Double (Nameless #14)
In book five of the series – entitled Twospot – Pronzini teamed up with fellow writer Collin Wilcox, creating a novel that alternated chapters between each of their series-based detectives (Nameless in the case of Pronzini, and Lt. Frank Hastings in the case of Wilcox). Double is another novel that uses this method, alternating chapters between Nameless and author Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone character. And, like Twospot, the marriage of the two characters works beautifully.
Double has the same premise as an earlier Nameless novel entitled Hoodwink, in which Nameless attends a convention (one for pulp writers in Hoodwink; one for private investigators in Double) only to have a dead body turn up. In this case, Nameless sees Elaine Picard – head of security at the Casa del Rey Hotel, in which the convention is taking place – fall from the top floor of the building. While the police label it a suicide, Nameless suspects she was pushed to her death. Together with Sharon McCone, who was a friend of Picard’s, the two detectives start to unravel some strange goings-on that start with the hotel and branch out from there.
Pronzini and Muller’s styles very closely resemble each other, making for a seamless story that did not feel disjointed as the chapters alternated back and forth between Nameless and McCone. If anything, the styles were so close I nearly found myself forgetting which character’s point-of-view I was reading in a given chapter. I also like that this story was given a chance to breathe. I don’t have exact page counts because I read on a tablet, but it felt like Double was at least twice as long as a typical Nameless novel, and it may have been even bigger than that. The extra length allowed the authors to build strong characters and settings, as well as create one doozy of a mystery. I know Pronzini and Muller have done other projects together, and if they’re half as good as Double was, I’m in for some great reading down the road.
(9 out of 10)
There you have it, folks. I know noir/pulp/P.I. novels are probably a bit of a niche genre these days, but for my money, no one does private detectives better than Pronzini. It’s truly a joy to read his work, especially when I go back to the Nameless series and see what flavor of hot water he gets himself into next time.
Until we meet again…