Hoodwink by Bill Pronzini

Russell Dancer used to be a great writer of stories for pulp magazines. After he agrees to attend a convention in San Francisco, he receives an odd delivery – a blackmail threat over the plagiarism of a short story called “Hoodwink” that he knows nothing about. Neither do his fellow attendees, all of whom have received the same threat. He calls on his friend, the Nameless Detective, a pulp devotee, to sniff around the convention, which Nameless is more than happy to do. He’s less thrilled, however, when he finds Dancer inside a room, locked from the inside, drunk as a skunk, with a smoking gun in his hand. And, of course, a body on the floor…

Bill Pronzini has been referred to as the best author of crime fiction that no-one has heard of. That’s pretty harsh – the “no-one has heard of” bit, but it’s not that far from the truth. Over here in the UK, I don’t recall seeing any books by Pronzini on a library shelf or in a bookshop and yet he has released thirty eight books to date featuring The Nameless Detective and a slew of others as well. I’ve come across him before in short story collections and really liked his contributions and so when both TomCat and Patrick gave positive reviews to Hoodwink, I figured I ought to check it out. It’s one of Pronzini’s novels that are available on Kindle, so after a few button presses, hey presto, instant book.

However, I ought to point out that the traditional private detective isn’t my usual genre – in fact, I think I can safely say that I’ve yet to review such a book (Poirot doesn’t count) and after 119 reviews, it would seem that I’ve actively avoiding them. So, will this book force a change of heart?

Well, for starters, Nameless isn’t exactly a traditional private detective. When I think of the American P.I., I envisage the large-fisted blunt-instrument characters of which I’ve heard but have never read (and have very little intention of reading). Nameless, in this book at least, is a character who thinks first and, even then, doesn’t seem to be a particularly violent character. It’s almost as if being a private investigator is a game to play that also happens to be a career. Indeed, he speculates in the book – it’s in the first person – if his choice of career is due to his obsession with detective stories from the pulp magazines that he collects.

Nameless is very good company with his narration – he’s flawed, yes, but very human. I think it’s fairly safe to say that there’s a lot of Bill Pronzini in the character – he even bumps into a writer with a similar sounding name who looks like him at the convention. Oh, and if you’re worried, the Nameless thing isn’t a mysterious stranger-type thing. People know his name – we just never hear it. It’s also nice to see that he isn’t perfect – he’s smart enough to work out most of the plot, but the final details (including the killer) are only added in hindsight.

The rest of the characters get a pretty good show as well – the Pulpiteers as they’re called – and are nice and distinctive, and a personal touch is added to the tale as Nameless falls for the daughter of two of them, to the mother’s delight and the father’s dismay. But the best characters in the world wouldn’t make up for a shaky plot.

Luckily, this is not the case here. It’s a while before the first murder happens (and there are two locked-room murders here), but Pronzini builds the pressure up nicely so that you don’t find yourself twiddling your thumbs until it takes place. The second murder happens at the right time in the plot to give it another kick and there’s a genuinely gripping climax as well.

And, most pleasingly, this is a properly clued traditional mystery. Both the locked rooms make sense, even if, as admitted in the book, the second one would have been difficult to do, and there are at least three clear clues to the murderer. Arguably one of them (the second one that Nameless explains at the end) is a bit obvious, but to me, it was so obvious that I dismissed it as not important. Silly old me. Still, that made me genuinely surprised at the end. I was fairly sure that who the murderer would be in order to fulfil what I saw as one of the private eye clichés, but I was forgetting that this was a traditional-style mystery that just happened to feature a private eye.

Any real criticisms? Well, I wasn’t too pleased with Nameless’ casual use of a certain word early in the narrative – I think that word shouldn’t be used as a metaphor/simile, but other than that (which is a very minor point indeed) this is an absolutely fantastic book. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the point of this blog is to find current writers who are creating classic mysteries. Well, that’s two in a row! And another author to add to the “To Read” list. Thankfully, I’ve plenty to catch up on…

This is replacing The Devil To Pay as the California entry for The Mystery Tour of the USA – simply because it’s a much better book…

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
This entry was posted in Bill Pronzini, Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders, Mystery Tour of the USA, Nameless. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Hoodwink by Bill Pronzini

  1. Like the rest of us, you join to worship at the altar of that true master Bill Pronzini – welcome! This is probably the right book to start with for a fan of impossible crimes but I hope this also means you will be prepared to try a Ross Macdonald or a Dashiell Hammett in the future!

  2. TomCat says:

    Doc, like Sergio, I’m glad that you found your first, full-length nameless novel an enjoyable one and that we can welcome you in his group of devotees – which is, alas, still a very select one. But then again, true geniuses are seldom recognized by the masses.

    Anyway, you might be interested in tackling Bones, another one of his takes on the locked room mystery, or Carpenter and Quincannon, a short story collection of historical detective stories, next. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller are also working on a new series of Carpenter and Quincannon novels, which, by the way, was officially announced on my blog. And that’s enough self-promotion for one day! ;)

    On Ross MacDonald: I have read a few of his books and thought The Far Side of the Dollar was the best. It even ended up on my list of favorite detective stories.

  3. curtis evans says:

    Coincidentally I’ve got a blog piece lined up on Pronzini soon. It seems odd to see him referred to as an author no one has heard of. Of course in my case his survey books 1001 Midnights and Gun in Cheek had a great influence on me as a mystery reader.

    • Well, maybe the “unheard of” is just in the UK, but given that he writes (based on this novel) very accessible thriller/detective fiction, it baffles me that, for example, Harlan Coben decorates the bookshelves over here and not Pronzini (nothing against Coben, mind you). I’m sure that the readers who are in the know about crime fiction know Pronzini, but I don’t think the general public – at least the British contingent – are aware of him. Which seems to be a real shame.

  4. John says:

    I think Pronzini’s heyday was in the 1970s. Pretty much everyone in the US who called him/herself a detective fiction devotee was reading him then. And his wife, too. He kind of lost appeal in the 1980s through the 1990s when the detective novel (both traditional and private eye versions) was eclipsed by the demand for police thrillers, books obsessed with forensic pathology and autopsies, and violent serial killer novels. But it should be noted that Pronzini (with sometime collaborator Barry Malzberg) wrote two very good serial killer novels before they became the formula work of writers ripping off Thomas Harris left and right. I still like Pronzini’s early work the best. His lifetime devotion to the genre is something that continually amazes me and I’m in awe of his knowledge and envious of his vast library of vintage mystery novels most of which are impossible to find these days.

    • Well, he’s certainly got a new convert in me – and by having a large chunk of his back catalogue available on Kindle, there’s no excuse not to be dipping into it again soon.

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