The Alias Man
Walker Publishing Company
US Hardcover First
213 Pages; $24.00
Publication Date: July, 2004
Date Reviewed: October 8, 2004
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004
Bill Pronzini, author of the admired and long-running "Nameless" detective series, not only shifts gears for this stand-alone mystery, but also shifts genders, writing a psychological suspense novel from the point of view of three female protagonists each done wrong by the same duplicitous con-man.
Jessie, a Pennsylvania antique dealer, is vacationing in Santa Fe where she meets a charming and thoroughly appealing guy who delivers just the right romantic whirlwind and presses her to marry him. Then he disappears. Sarah, owner of a failing bookstore in Vancouver, continues to mourn the accidental death of her husband several years previously. Despite attentions from a wealthy and amorous local attorney, Sarah clings to memories from the past until she discovers that her husband may not, in fact, be dead. Morgan, a school teacher in a small northern California town, is currently married, but increasingly fearful that her marriage is unraveling. Her concern acquires a whole new dimension when she discovers fake passports and photos of her husband with other women. All three women slowly learn they've been not only duped but bilked; they eventually discover their fellow victims, and together, set out to put things right.
Pronzini does an excellent job of developing and differentiating his three female players, filling in the details of their lives, both physical and psychological, to build realistic characters with distinctly believable, if muted, emotions. The narrative is at its strongest as it watches each woman uncover the rogue's duplicitous behavior. Each must resift and resort her past life in light of the shocking discovery. Equally strong is the interaction of the three women with each other and the wary yet strong alliance they form to hunt down and thwart the conniving rat they've now dubbed "Alias Man". Each woman handles the discovery of betrayal a little differently, but each also behaves intelligently and sanely. These are contemporary women who confront betrayal with determination, without "poor, poor me", without hand wringing or hysterics, but also without any fiery, well-deserved anger. They band together to seek justice, but not revenge, and the emotional intensity of their quest is oddly muted.
Unfortunately, while the women's psychological stories are interesting, the novel never achieves a compelling level of suspense or tension. The plot veers unexpectedly from "scheming rat bilking unsuspecting women" into a tale of mega-dollar art forgery. And while the ins-and-outs of forging art are interesting, they don't deliver the suspenseful wallop promised by the "women done wrong" set-up. The villain, viewed primarily through the eyes of the three women, is shadowy, simply not sufficiently fleshed out to be sinister. He makes but one on-page appearance near the close of the novel to expose his evil fangs, but he does it ever so briefly and with little substantive menace. Pronzini attempts to expose the women to the threat of physical danger, but that too, registers but lightly on the suspense scale. A death in the novel turns out to be an accident, almost unheard of in a mystery tale.
In 'The Alias Man', the character-driven psychological segments of the story stand strong, but the suspense falters, taking the substance of the story along with it. As always, Pronzini's prose is direct, clean and vivid. His primary characters are well-drawn and authentic, but the story-line zags where it should zig, leaving us with a novel that's diverting but only mildly interesting. Cool cover though!