"In a world that operates largely at random, coincidences are to be expected, but any one of them must always be mistrusted."- Nero Wolfe (Champagne for One, 1958)
Hit your print screen key, this is a sight to behold! Not only is this the fourth blog entry in a row that discusses a book from the post-GAD era, but also the second one, posted back-to-back, of which the author, thankfully, is still among us! There's some life welling up in this dusty, cobweb-strewn crypt erected in honor of the great pioneers of the detective story.
Bill Pronzini is one of the lucky few to be carted into this mausoleum who still has a pulse and a healthy color on his cheeks, and the book that put him here, way before his time, is Hoodwink (1981) – a clever impossible crime novel set at a pulp convention that offers two different locked room scenarios.
The case opens with Pronzini's nameless gumshoe kicking back in his office chair with an old pulp magazine, deeply immerged in a story from an old acquaintance, Russell Dancer, a once popular wordsmith of pulp fiction who rapidly descended into hackdom after the pulp market collapsed, when that very same writer drops in on him bearing an invitation to a pulp convention that has a minor favor attached to it.
San Francisco's first annual Western Pulp Con is the setting for the reunion of The Pulpeteers, a social group of people involved in the pulps, primarily intended for writers, but among its members are also an editor and a cover artist, and someone has been littering their mailboxes with extortion notes – accusing each of a 30-year-old plagiarism.
That's were the unnamed shamus comes in. Dancer wants him to prowl around the convention to see if he can pick anything up that might indicate who's behind the blackmail scam, but there's not much he can do at the con besides fawning at his favorite pulp writers, buying pulp magazines missing from his collection and wooing the daughter of two well-known writers – and the only thing he's able to figure out is that there isn't much love lost between the lampoon of pulp legends who euphorically refer to themselves as The Pulpeteers.
Notwithstanding the antagonistic undercurrent, everything seems to go off pretty well and the con promises to be a minor success – until a shot rang out from behind the locked door of Dancer's room and when it's opened, he's hovering over a body with a smoking gun in his hand. The locked and watched environment of the hotel room makes it a physical impossibility for anyone else to have fired the fatal shot, but the hack writer claims that he's innocent and the only one who's willing to believe him is nameless.
Nameless takes on the case, more or less, pro bono, and digs deeper into the internal relationship between the members of the pulp group, as well as the origin of the extortion notes – and determines that they are closely intertwined with one another, but that doesn't bring him any closer to a actual murderer or how this person managed to escape from a locked and watched hotel room. The case becomes increasingly more complicated when he chances upon the body of another member of the group, whose skull has been split with a double-bitted ax, locked behind the door of a completely sealed shack and the fallen stepladder suggests a freak accident. But nameless is rather skeptical of that theory.
The locked rooms are expertly and satisfyingly explained, and are as good as anything you might expect from the great old practitioners of the impossible crime story. The murder in the hotel room has a convincing and logical explanation for the locked room illusion, while the method for sealing the shed is delightfully complex and a more workable variation on a trick that we've seen before.
Full marks for Pronzini on that aspect of the plot, but how does the rest of the story measure up against the works of his predecessors? Surprisingly well. Just like Rex Stout, he successfully blends orthodox plotting with hardboiled storytelling and unlike many of his contemporaries; he can tell that story without padding and drowning it in character angst.
That's not to say there isn't any character development in this book, there is, nameless even has a sex live (somewhere, that prick, Julian "Bloody" Symons, is nodding approvingly), however, these moment of characterization are snippets sprinkled over the plot and therefore don't distract the reader from the fact that he's reading a detective story. Heck, I even became interested in these brief moments of character insight, for the sole reason that they were brief and not dwelled on for hundreds of pages, and nameless is a fairly interesting character.
He's described as one of the last of the Lone Wolf private ops, who wanted to become a detective because he loves reading the pulps, and even though he's living his dream, investigating two seemingly impossible murders, the job isn't as banged up as it appears to be in fiction. But he's doing what he dreamed of doing as a kid, he has his collection of pulp magazines and even gets the girl on occasion – and that's stuff dreams are made of for detective geeks.
Now if only a hard-bitten homicide cop would rang my doorbell, imploring me to follow him to an old, rundown mansion of a dysfunctional family where the eccentric matriarch was found strangled to death in a sealed attic room – and left a cryptic dying message on the dust covered floor that implicates the cursed family heirloom, a phantom clock that strikes thirteen at midnight, as the guilty party! That would be achieving true happiness.
You know, I really loathe real-life criminals for their lack of creativity. If they put a little effort in their petty crimes, I could build a career as a famous consulting detective – or at least as a ragged private eye in a shabby raincoat with a messy office in a disreputable neighborhood.
Oh, woe is I!