"Your chains are forged by what you say and do..."- Marley & Marley, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Well, I haven't been entirely faithful to the tagline scrawled across this blog, "dedicated to the great old detective stories of yore," but the contemporary mysteries I have discussed up to this point were at least defensible because they were written very much in the same vein as the enduring classics of their predecessors. I'm not sure how to justify slipping in a review of Bill Pronzini's Shackles (1988), though. It's not a detective story at all. It's a thriller, plain and simple, but a good one at that!
He Who Whispers
It's bizarre how, up to this book, I never really saw Bill Pronzini as the present-day grand master of the hard-bitten private eye novel. More like another Edward Hoch with a hardboiled edge to his stories. This is, of course, entirely my own fault as a reader, limiting myself solely to his locked room mysteries – as if he only wrote tough cozies. Yes, I deserve everything, and more, that Nameless had to endure in this book for even thinking of a term like that – let alone publishing it!
Shackles does nothing to reinforce the illusion I had of Bill Pronzini and shows a much darker side of his work, which is really what one should be expecting from a novelist of modern private eye stories and a ardent pulp fan.
The story opens with a prologue, in which Nameless is seized in front of his girlfriend's apartment, weeks before Christmas, by an unrecognizable, whispering man – handcuffed, chloroformed and roughly transported to an isolated mountain cabin in the dead of winter. When the unnamed gumshoe regains consciousness, he finds himself fettered with a leg iron to the wall and his masked captor wises him up on his precarious situation. He will be left there to die, chained to the wall, with just enough provisions, blankets, a dying heater and radio, and some reading and writing materials to prolong his suffering for three long, agonizing months – and cheerfully assures him that suicide is the only means of escape from his diabolically constructed prison cell.
Captured and sentenced to die, Nameless starts a seemingly hopeless battle to hold a firm grasp on his sanity while he tries to find the tiniest of crack in his escape-proof cell to squeeze through and the reader follows his struggle through diary entries. Nameless' dramatic soliloquy is the best part of the book, in which we don't only learn how he manages to claw his way to freedom, but also a little bit more about himself and how he became the person he was before being snatched away from his regular life and the person he will become if he survives this ordeal.
Pronzini once again demonstrated that good story telling shouldn't be sacrificed in favor of characterization, but that a balance should be established between the two and I think more writers should take notice of that if the
thriller crime novel wants to have a chance with a new generation of readers. Perhaps I'm wrong, but from what I can discern they aren't all that popular with us.
The second part of the story deals with the aftermath of Nameless' solitary weeks in captivity and the hunt for the man who put him there, but these events didn't grab me as much as the first half of the book – with exception of the big reveal of the identity of his jailer and his motivation for putting Nameless through hell and back. Critics are fond of books that humanizes the detective story, well, take notice of this book, because that's how you make an effective statement regarding the detective story. I don't want to give away too much, but suffice to say the antagonist Nameless faces here is someone whom he, and the reader, has met before and effectively shows what happens to the culprit after The Great Detective has done his dramatic dénouement and is lead away by the police to get his just desert. It's dark, it's bleak, and it stripped that previous impossible crime story of all its romantic trappings, but if you want to take that route this is the way it should be done.
Once again, I'm not a fervent reader of modern thrillers, too many bitter disappointments, but if more of them had even been half as good as this one, I would've picked up a lot more of them along the way – and I will definitely delve deeper into Bill Pronzini's impressive body of work.
Briefly put, this is a captivating read that will bind the reader to the pages until the end of the final chapter (I wonder how many reviewers before me made those awfully bad puns?).
Note: the next book on my mountainous pile of unread books is the anthology All But Impossible!: An Anthology of Locked Room and Impossible Crime Stories by Members of the Mystery Writers of America (1981), and contains one of Pronzini's short stories that I haven't read yet! :)