"Because most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes."- Nightcrawler, X2: X-Men United (2003)
Yeah, I know. In my prior blog post, I promised to recommence discussing impossible crime stories, but it was easier to first finish up Bill Pronzini's Nightcrawlers (2005) before starting on a new book – and I was in the mood for a gritty private eye novel anyway. That last part has me worried, though. There has to be something up with me when I pick a modern PI story over an old-fashioned locked room mystery. At first, I thought my personality was finally showing the tell-tale markings of maturity, but that suggestion was met with mock and ridicule by everyone who knows me personally – so I guess writers like Bill Pronzini, William DeAndrea and M.P.O. Books actually managed to shift my fundamentalistic negative opinion on contemporary fiction a little bit closer to the middle.
Nightcrawlers is a very recent entry into this long-running series, published for the first time a little over six years ago, and there have been a lot of changes since I left Nameless after he suffered and fought through one of his most arduous ordeals in Shackles (1988). First of all, he isn't The Nameless Detective anymore, but Bill (no surname yet), and he's married with an adopted daughter and has given up his existence as a desolate lone wolf op. Instead of running a one-man detective agency he has now gone into business with a young woman, Tamara Corbin, and employed a third detective, Jake Runyon, as a field operative. Unfortunately, these changes resulted in exactly the kind of problems I was afraid of when I read of them in a review of Schemers (2009).
What I admired about the previous Nameless books I read, Hoodwink (1981) and Shackles (1988), was how Pronzini succeeded in making Nameless a fully developed, three dimensional character and still told a good story without sacrificing its plot. The character developments were snippets sprinkled over an entire story, but that's a lot harder to do when you have to flesh-out three different protagonists – and as a result, storytelling and plotting were sacrificed in favor of characterization.
Nevertheless, it's commendable how most of their personal predicaments were still intertwined with the cases at hand and Jake Runyon's story left a favorable impression on me. His estranged son, born out of his first marriage, reluctantly reestablished contact with him after his lover was on the receiving end of brutal beating at the hands of two gay bashers – and there were more victims before him. Runyon promises to get to the bottom of these late-night beltings, not only as a way to reach out to his son but also because the police isn't particular interested in finding the perpetrators themselves, and quickly determines that there's a pattern in what appeared at first to be random attacks. It's not as complex or ingenious as similar type of plots that were popular during the Golden Age of the Detective Fiction, but it's very much in the same tradition and as close as you can possibly get to dropping off the classic detective story in the real world.
Nameless and Tamara also chip-in, but their workload for this book is of secondary concern to the overall plot of the story. The senior partner of the new detective firm, whom we now know to be named Bill, is summoned to the death bed of former pulp-writer Russell Dancer, who played a big part in the locked room novel Hoodwink, and asks him deliver a message and package to Bill's mother-in-law – another former pulp-writer who he has been lusting after for the better part of half-a-century and casts a grim shadow over that previous novel. Pronzini seems to have a penchant for stripping his locked room stories of all their romantic trappings by a shocking revelation in a later story (c.f. Shackles).
The junior partner, the enterprising Tamara, tries her hands at some good old legwork and bumps into a psychotic kidnapper who carries her off to a remote cabin – and the only prospective of escaping is into an early and shabbily dug grave. The main purpose of this plot thread is to give the book an exciting finale as Tamara and a little girl try to escape from their captor.
It's interesting to see how The Nameless Detective shed the imagery of the lonely gumshoe in a shabby office and succeeded stepping into a new era, but I'm afraid I prefer the image of that solitary, capeless crusader of the previous century. Hey, what can I say? I'm a difficult person and a classicist at heart.
The next update will consist of a review of an impossible crime novel. Cross my heart and hope to die!