"Nameless here forever more"

 "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! :)


  1. Told you his books fly by. ;)

    This honestly sounds like a very fun, enjoyable read. Not having read it yet, I don't have anything more substantial to say...

  2. Yeah, the pace of this book was even quicker than Hoodwink, which already was a ridiculously quick read. I think it's possible to work your way through the entire Nameless series in just about the same time as that it took you to blaze through the Case Closed series!

  3. Bill wrote a great impossible crime about a criminal being questioned by police who know he his guilty of a murder, but they can't find the a key piece of evidence. Without the evidence he can't be convicted. I think maybe it's the weapon, but I'm not sure. The solution is a hysterical surprise. I burst out laughing first time I read it. Can't recall the title, but the story stays with me. And it's in one of those Robert Adey edited anthologies. Maybe that's the one you're talking about in your final paragraph above.

  4. You're referring to the story "Proof of Guilt," collected in the anthology Murder Impossible, and it's the only one of his impossible tales that failed to impress me. Everyone else seems to like it, though.

    The story in All But Impossible! is entitled "The Arrowmont Prison Riddle," and according to Mike Grost's website it also involves an impossible disappearance.

    I'm really looking forward to reading this collection as it contains a lot of stories by Yaffe, McCloy, Pentecost and Breen (and others) that I wanted to read for some time now.

  5. Thanks for SHACKLES review. Very nicely done. Insightful, and completely fair in judgment.

    The key factor in my work, which you touched on here, is that I like to experiment. Some of my novels and stories have classic detective plots involving locked rooms and the like, some deal with more modern themes, some (such as SHACKLES) are hybrids of the detective story and thriller, some are straight thrillers. Most have contemporary settings; the Carpenter and Quincannon stories are historicals. Some are very dark in tone, some much lighter, some deliberately humorous. Trying different styles and approaches helps keep my work fresh, or so I like to believe.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to post a comment here, Mr. Pronzini! It's definitely appreciated.

    I don't have a problem with dark and bleak stories, but I find that a lot of your contemporaries are completely inept in telling an engrossing story – and think characterization consists of piling on personal misery and wallowing in them for hundreds of pages. Nameless also carries a fair amount of baggage with him, but he simply refuses to let it weigh him down and only touches upon it briefly. That's the way I prefer it. Good story telling and sharp characterization that doesn't intrude (too much) on the story being told.

    I've been eyeing the collection of Carpenter and Quincannon stories for some time now, and I will probably order the book in the next few weeks or so. Cowboys and locked rooms? Yes! I take a dozen of 'em, please! :D

  7. An excellent review TomCat and you've certainly picked an important title on the Nameless series- I'm currently re-reading Spadework, the fine anthology of Nameless short stories published by those nice people at Crippen & Landru, and it provides a useful primer in terms of the sheer variety of approaches that Mr Pronzini adopts in his work.

  8. Are you going to review Spadework for your blog? Not that I need any more excuses to buy more of his stories, but I'm easily tempted into placing an extra order – and I'm somewhat surprise at myself that I haven't done so already. It almost requires buying a reward for myself. Hey, good behavior should be encouraged! ;)

  9. The SPADEWORK review should be going up on Wednesday but I doubt I will be able to stop you giving in to temptation ...