2013 MARKS THE 45th ANNIVERSARY of one of crime fiction’s most enduring and hardest working PIs: Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective. Making his first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1968’s “It’s a Lousy World,” Nameless has appeared in 36 novels and more than 40 short stories. At the moment, his is the longest running PI series currently in print. By this point, he’s out performed and outlived the Continental Op, Spade, Marlowe, Archer, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, and most of his snoopy brethren. Nameless now stands with Holmes, Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and Spenser asone of the longest surviving literary private eyes of all time, and Pronzini deservedly towers tall alongside their titanic scribes. Pronzini was instrumental in modernizing the private eye genre, moving away from overly stylized syntax and hardboiled super heroes towards a more realistic and humanistic presentation in which we can recognize our own world and ourselves. Whether they know it or not (and hopefully they do), all contemporary PI writers and readers owe a great debt to Pronzini. Scholar, collector, editor, anthologist, and writer, he is, without a doubt, among the most significant minds in the mystery field of the past century.
Over the years, Pronzini has kept the name of his first-person narrator closely guarded, revealing it only once in the entire run of the series thus far (or so rumor has it, I’m still playing catch-up and haven’t come across it yet). Despite his anonymity, however, Nameless is among the most recognizably human of private eyes. He is an archetype fueled by heart rather than hype. He carries a gun not out of bloodlust (like Mike Hammer), but for protection from a world he knows is twisted, violent, and remorseless. He’s not hard drinking, fast loving, or quick with the quip. A San Francisco resident, devoted collector of pulp magazines and crime fiction scholar (like Pronzini, himself), Nameless is aware of his profession’s literary tradition, and he shows affection for his predecessors without ever seeming affected or self-conscious. He’s less extraordinary than he is ordinary; more like a neighbor we’re likely to sit at a counter with at the diner than someone who would save the world from certain doom. Nameless is a professional, he does his job, and he cares about it, but he’s mortal, and — more importantly — he mourns. “It’s a hell of a world we live in,” he says in Kinsmen, “A hell of a world.”
Cemetery Dance has contributed two new editions to Pronzini’s ever-lengthening bibliography, the novellas Kinsmen and Femme. Kinsmen, originally published in Criminal Intent magazine in 1993, finds Nameless investigating the disappearance of two college students last seen at a backwoods motel in upstate California. When he learns the couple was interracial, Nameless begins to wonder if there’s more behind the townsfolk’s tight lips than just innocent resentment of his prying eyes. Pronzini doesn’t indulge in the usual PI dramatics; like Ed Gorman, the great humanist amongst all PI writers, Pronzini is too sensitive to the pain of the victims, too sick over the hate of the criminals, and too hungover from bearing witness for too damn long. Says Nameless as he exits a movie theater in disgust at the film, “Entertainment? Hell no. There’s nothing entertaining about blood and pain and abused flesh. Not at the best of times and sure as hell not when your job is dealing with the real thing in the real world.” Pronzini has exchanged romance for reticence, excitement for empathy. “It made me feel cold, dirty, and sad and angry,” Nameless says of the case, and it’s a feeling that pervades the whole work. There’s nothing sanctimonious about this, as one might expect from Chandler or Spillane. Instead, Pronzini offers weariness and melancholy.
Femme, a new work from Pronzini, is an outstanding addition to his already impressive body of work, and proof that after nearly 80 adventures, the Nameless series is still going strong, still crisp, and never boring. Evoking the famous meeting of Private Detective Sam Spade and duplicitous dame Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who claims to be looking for her sibling, Nameless’s new case begins when Cory Beckett engages him to find her missing brother, Ken, wanted for stealing a diamond necklace from his employer’s wife. The case may be classical PI territory, but Pronzini’s approach is fresh. The initial investigation has amusing trappings — annoying yachtsmen, packing-peanut entrepreneurs, union leaders, and extramarital affairs — but, in characteristic Pronzini fashion, the emotional ruin at the heart of the case is devastating, and downright sorrowful. “Sickness and disgust, mingled with sadness and an impotent anger at the inhumanity of it,” is what Nameless feels. Private eye fiction isn’t all fun and games anymore.
As Kinsmen and Femme exemplify, the mechanics of Pronzini’s plotting are flawless and fluid. No hiccups, no stretches in logic, nothing beyond believability. He is reticent with his use of similes, but when he does use one it is uncontrived and spot-on. Ken Beckett is described not just as a moth “unable to resist the pull of a destructive flame,” but as one “fluttering back and forth, going nowhere.” The elegance of Pronzini’s language prevents it from seeming a cliché. His phrasing, so direct, is at times like poetry. “Alive, she’d been beautiful; dead, she was a torn and ugly travesty.” His use of the semicolon is a surprising and delicate touch, maintaining the subtle, lyrical lilt of the sentence.
Both novellas have the smooth efficiency and concision of a short story, but expanded to 180-ish easy-reading but hard-hitting pages. Unpretentious, Pronzini doesn’t resort to extreme violence, kooky concepts, or narrative or stylistic gimmicks. He doesn’t have to. There’s an ease to his prose, like João Gilberto’s guitar work. The skill is in making something so complicated sound so effortless, relaxation the true sign of mastery. He doesn’t pander or perform; where others stretch the private eye form to make room for themselves, Pronzini tightens it in calm confidence.
The real pleasure, though, is in the voice. His detective isn’t out to change the world, just out to do a job and do it well. Along the way, he’ll do the right thing if he can. Nameless isn’t an idealist. He’s a realist — and Pronzini is the same, not out to change the game, just to do his job, tell a good story, and entertain a few readers.
Did I say prolific? He has a third new release, The Bughouse Affair, written in collaboration with another modern legend of the PI genre (who also happens to be his wife), Marcia Muller. Just as influential as Nameless is Muller’s series detective, Sharon McCone. First seen in 1977’s now-classic Edwin of the Iron Shoes, McCone showed that modern-day mean streets are not just for boys, and cemented the female PI as a character to be taken seriously by writers and readers alike.
Since the passing of Kenneth Millar (a.k.a. Ross Macdonald) and Margaret Millar, Pronzini and Muller have been the reigning King and Queen of mystery fiction. Like the Millars, their marriage is a match made in heaven: two top-tier crime writers, each with their own distinctive style and independent reputation. Also like the Millars, Pronzini and Muller are the only other partners to receive the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. Unlike the Millars, however, Pronzini and Muller have also consummated their marriage on the page, through numerous collaborative novels and anthologies.
A delightfully screwball historical set in late-19th century San Francisco, The Bughouse Affair centers around the PI firm of ex–Secret Service agent John Quincannon and ex-Pinkerton Sabina Carpenter: partners in profession, not love, much to Quincannon’s dismay. With Quincannon repeatedly lousing up his attempts to catch a serial burglar, and Carpenter losing track of the female pickpocket she is trailing, business is not going so well. The cases seem increasingly to be interrelated, and a fellow claiming to be “Sherlock Holmes” enters their lives, and makes things worse. This pain in their necks claims to have both cases wrapped up but doesn’t, and it’s up to Quincannon and Carpenter to step up their games, save face, and solve the case.
The Bughouse Affair may be a more cordial cozy than the noir-laden Kinsmen and Femme, but it’s an equally fine piece of mystery craftsmanship. Like a tightly edited, multinarrative movie, The Bughouse Affair never drags, jumping between Quincannon and Carpenter’s adventures, creating a comical dialectic between their diametrically opposed personalities. Stubborn with unrequited love, Quincannon is the classic hardboiled dick who acts out of instinct rather than intellect. Carpenter is more sophisticated and cerebral in her practices but equally stubborn when it comes to her feelings, hence her refusal to give Quincannon the time of day. Originally appearing in Pronzini’s 1985 novel, Quincannon, it’s great to see the two detectives back on the page again. They’re an instantly likable duo, charming and amiable enough to win over even a noir-hardened, cozy-phobic reader like myself. I hope it won’t be too long before Pronzini and Muller pair them up on another case.