"Watching tomorrow with one eye, while keeping the other on yesterday."
- The Real Folk Blues.
When I first started reading detective fiction, I was fascinated with stories of unremembered crimes and their effect on the living when their faded memory is exhumed from oblivion – where they've lain dormant for decades. I mean, just imagine that someone goes missing and two decennia's later a pile of earth-caked bones are discovered by construction workers, confronting family and friends, whom all lived a full life in those twenty years, with the incarnate past – and even though they've become different people in the intermediating years, what matters is what happened twenty years ago. A skeleton has crept into the clock and turned back time.
I guess the concept of the past rising up to obscure the present captivates me, because I suffer from a relatively mild form of chronophobia and although time cultivated my taste and preferences, I still perk up when a detective story focuses on a crime buried deep in the past or uncovers a bundle of dusty bones and a grinning skull. So you can imagine my joy when I discovered that Bill Pronzini's Bones (1985) has his then unnamed detective not only investigating a 35-year-old suicide of a famous pulp writer, but also made him discover a stack of old bones and busting open the door behind a cleverly executed locked room trick. Hey, is it my birthday already!?
As most of you've noticed by now, I've been zigzagging through this series and it's interesting to observe that none of the books I have picked up are really alike – not only in style but also the constant evolvement of the characters. In this book, nameless already shed his lone wolf persona and has gone into a partnership with Eberhardt, who retired from the force after a fifteen year run as a homicide detective, while the story itself is a Carrian mixture of a dark, but understated, atmosphere and sometimes complete farce. There's a painfully funny sequence, in which nameless and his fiancée are, more or less, forced to spend an evening with Eberhardt and his voluptuous breasted wife-to-be, who, by the way, is also an annoying blabbermouth, at a shabby, second-rate Italian restaurant – and the ensuing diner "conversation" just wants to make you slump to the floor, crawl under the table and die as fast as possible. What else can you do when you're caught in the cross fire of a fatal four-way of that magnitude?
I also enjoyed the parts in which he compared an aggressive guard dog, belonging to one of the suspects, to the burbeling Jabberwock, or when he decided to play Sherlock Holmes and deduced by the state of Eberhardt's clothes that he got laid mere hours ago. Oh, and we should try our hands at that stupid game Russell Dancer and Harmon Crane use to play and come up with the worst possible book titles using the word death. Here's my first shot: Death's Inexhaustible Customer Base. Cringe, my friends! Cringe!
But it's not a story that's entirely compounded of laughs and giggles. It's an exceedingly dark, brooding and sinuous problem that nameless is facing, which begins when he's summoned to the home of a very ill man, who wants him to look into the death of his father, Harmon Crane – a once famous pulp writer who shot himself in his locked study more than three decades ago. His son wants a motive pinned to the deed. The prospective of satisfyingly concluding an assignment like that is nearly non-existent, but nameless, the always enthusiastic pulp fanboy, takes on the case and gives it his best shot – and he acts more as a detective cut from the classic mold here than in any of the other novels I read. He diligently pursues suspects, hears witnesses, follows up on leads and sniffs around for clues while stumbling over no less than three bodies in the process! Jessica Fletcher is a rank amateur compared to this guy.
One of these macabre routine discoveries is made when he's prowling the grounds around the remains of an old cabin, used by Harmon Crane during his lifetime, when the titular pile of bones are brought to light by a recent earthquake, which conveniently reopened an old fissure that was used as a makeshift grave many decades ago, warming up a dead cold trail that eventually leads our gumshoe to the guilty party. I have to say, though, without giving too much away, that the solution is a bit too busy and I wish more attention was bestowed upon the problem of the locked room – but those are minor quibbles, really. I have only one real complaint about this book. Nameless alluded to Sherlock Holmes, but made a small, but not entirely unimportant, mistake: the Victorian maverick detective didn't snort cocaine; he shot-up heroine. Not that that is any better, but hey, with detective stories the importance is in the details.
I normally have some insightful observations to make on how Bill Pronzini effectively made a statement regarding the genre or how perfectly he dropped off the classic detective story in the real world, like he did in the previous two books I read, but this is not that type of book. Bones is a return to Hoodwink (1982), in which he refuses to make any excuses to have some old-fashioned fun. This is a just a detective story, plain and simple, and you can take it or leave it – and it's your lost if you pick the latter.
On a final note, I want to thank our nameless gumshoe for helping me find the words needed to express my appreciation and gratitude to the author who gave us these little hybrid gems: Mr. Pronzini, "I think you're the cats nuts!" ;)
All the books I have reviewed in this series:
EDIT: the title of this blog entry is a line from the song Gotta Knock a Little Harder.