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Bill Pronzini
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2005

Carroll & Graf Publishers/Avalon Publishing Group
US Hardcover First
ISBN: 0-7867-1086-1
233 Pages; $24.00
Publication Date: December, 2002
Date Reviewed: March 15, 2004

Index:  Mystery

It's always been my practice in reading series novels to wait for the release (or at least the announcement) of a new installment before reading the last one. It's something of an odd approach and of course it means that I'm always at least one novel behind in my reading. But to me it's ultimately reassuring to know that there's another book either in the works or on the shelves, my own form of series insurance against either too long a gap between visits or, God forbid, a final The End to a longtime favorite. That happens not infrequently in my world of series PIs — Steven Greenleaf did it to John Marshall Tanner, Jeremiah Healy did it to John Francis Cuddy, Michael Nava did it to Henry Rios, and Dennis Lehane seems to have done it to Kinzey and Gennaro. Thankfully, Bill Pronzini is not doing it to his Nameless Detective — the post-'Spook' installment, 'Nightcrawlers', (Forge, March 2005) is just now out, and yet another Nameless novel is waiting in queue. For this one small person, in this one small instance, in this one small sector, all is indeed, right with the world.

'Spook' is the 28th (if I count correctly — it's more than all my fingers and toes) Nameless Detective novel. Pronzini published the first back in 1971, and although I didn't start reading them until sometime in the late 70s, I quickly backtracked to catch up and haven't missed a one since. I've experienced the evolution of Nameless from San Francisco's own Chandleresque loner PI — very solitary, very gloomy, sitting in his fog-shrouded Pacific Heights apartment with his collection of pulps — to a partnership with ex-cop and friend Eberhardt, with its slow-building, disheartening and ultimately bitter sad end. I've sweated through his survivalist's nightmare at the hands of an abductor in 'Shackles', rooted for his budding romance with Kerry, advertising maven and all round straight-shooting woman, applauded his marriage and, while initially surprised, ultimately came around to his becoming a father to an adopted child. It's the evolution of a PI, the unfolding of a life, and the mining of a character, all uncovered through realistic, involving and always satisfying detective stories that by themselves stand with the best of the genre. New adventures, new challenges, new realities — all experienced and narrated by someone who has now become an old friend.

'Spook' finds Nameless at age 60 in a state of semi-retirement. He's made bright, brazen computer-whiz Tamara a partner in his PI firm and hires a new operative, Jake Runyon, a former Seattle police officer who's moved to San Francisco after the death of his beloved wife to renew a relationship with his estranged gay son. The firm is hired by a SOMA dot comish company to uncover the identity of a homeless person found shot to death in their office doorway. The harmless, homeless man, Spook, was befriended by a number of workers who want simply to know his name to give him a proper burial. It's not a murder investigation; it's just an identity trace. But what starts out so straight-forwardly becomes, as in most Pronzini stories, far more complicated, with tendrils that reach out from the past to impact the present. And it becomes far more dangerous.

What sets the Nameless series apart from many others of its ilk is its realism and, of course, Nameless himself. Pronzini's books are wholly rooted in the here-and-now, the completely believable world-as-we-know-it. Nameless is a real private investigator, a bit hard-edged, occasionally hard-headed, but not hard boiled -- the kind you or I would hire should we ever find need of such services. Without swagger or bravado, not prone to errant wisecracks (but not without subtle humor), he's thoughtful, rational, cautious and comfortably sane. Nameless takes on his jobs and doggedly does what needs doing, however unsavory the path or unsettling the final result. And his jobs, too, are realistic, crimes petty or horrific, rooted in the deep past or in the bewildering present, superficially simple but beguilingly complex. The stories are peopled with characters that are common place and comfortable, menacely seasoned with other characters that are neither.

Pronzini's plotting is deceptively clean cut. Events flow from one to the next with a logic and sensibility that is comprehensible and clear — no artifice, no convenient coincidence, no gross-outs, and no shoot-outs at the OK Corral. Suspension of disbelief - not required -- Pronzini's world is recognizably real. His pacing is perfect -- exposition, clue, grunt-work, light-bulb -- skillfully mixed with accurate and finely-rendered San Francisco atmosphere, appropriate and believable violence, and all underscored with well-drawn characters any reader will grow to care for.

Should all this realism sound tame and uninteresting in this neo-noir age of hyper-violence, Pronzini's genius is that it is never either. Each installment is unique, each story a criminally twisted slice of the life we see around us every day and each provides deepening and involving insight into the man-with-no-name. All this is delivered with subtle comments on the ever-changing world we live in and enough tension to provide a few sweaty-palmed moments.

A number of big-name mystery series writers these days are allowing their protagonists to grow older without withdrawing from the game. Block's Matt Scudder, Parker's Spenser and Pronzini's Nameless, Rankin's Rebus and Harvey's Redneck are but a few. These writers are presenting characters and adventures with a nuanced but bold acknowledgement of the realities of getting old. It seems like the not new thing is, in fact, the hot old thing. Can you be a cool PI after 60? Well, the answer seems to be a resounding yes!

As Nameless ages, Pronzini is surrounding him with strong supporting cohorts — both Tamara and the newly introduced Jake Runyon are emerging as intriguing characters on their own, with much promise for either a spin-off or continuation of this superb series as long as Pronzini wants to write it. But it is Nameless himself who is still carrying the weight, who's providing a consistently solid anchor that makes each installment memorable and satisfying and the next installment eagerly awaited. And just to favor his devoted fans with a little blog-fodder, Pronzini's done the long-awaited deed — he's given Nameless a name — a rather nice one at that.

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