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…