After reading Marcia Muller’s first Sharon McCone series (click here for the review), I thought it might be fun to go look at the debut of another San Francisco private eye, one that she would subsequently meet. “Nameless’ was created by Bill Pronzini (now Muller’s husband), who later partnered McCone in Double (1984, co-written with Muller). In his debut, the anonymous detective is hired to drop off a ransom for a kidnapped child, but at the exchange the kidnapper is killed, the money stolen and our narrator stabbed …
I offer this review for Bev’s Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“My name was mentioned twice in the Examiner, three times in Times, misspelled once in the latter”
Like Hammett’s Continental Op, Len Deighton’s 1960s spy hero (called ‘Harry Palmer’ when played by Michael Caine in the movies) and the first person protagonists of Daphne Du Maurier”s Rebecca and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, we never find out the name of the PI who narrates this book and those in the series that has followed – he is known as “Nameless” on the covers but is truly an Everyman. Despite not being told his name (well, he has been called ‘Bill’ in one of the books, a collaboration with Colin Wilcox, but we’ll ignore that as a blip I think) , we feel like we know pretty much everything else that matters about who he is.
Over time the character has changed, not least because, as Pronzini admits, he needed to stop him getting unrealistically old for his profession; and because he just forgot a few details over the decades. In this first book he is 47 years old, a veteran of the second World War who served with the police for 15 years before leaving to become a PI when the day-to-day horrors of the job became too much for him. 10 years later and he makes a modest living and has a reputation for honesty. He is in love with Erika but she worries about his horrible smoker’s cough (he’s a three packs a day man) and is reaching the end of her tether. In one powerful scene after he winds up stabbed and in hospital, she truly lets him have it:
“You’re a kid dreaming about being a hero, and yet you haven’t got the guts or the flair to go out and be one; you’re too honest and too sensitive and too ethical, too affected by real corruption and real human misery to be the kind of lone-wolf private eye you’d like to be. You’re no damned hero and it hurts you that you’re not, and that’s why you won’t let go of it.”
Our ‘hero’ was hired to drop off the $300,000 ransom for the return of the son of Louis Martinetti, though it turns out the tycoon is no longer the man he once was. His wife is having an affair with his male secretary, and he is virtually broke, and so has to borrow the money from his much more risk-averse business associate, a man who loves money so much that he gets sexual satisfaction just from thinking about the cash he has in the bank. After “Nameless” gets out of hospital, Martinetti keeps him on ostensibly to recover the money and find out where his son is, but the police are already doing, and really he has been hired to look into who in Martinetti’s inner circle must have engineered the switch since no one else knew where and when the drop off was due to take place that night. Having crashed his car after the attack, “Nameless” borrows Erika’s and follows various leads until he ultimately gets a line on just who the kidnapper was and the woman he was seeing. This leads ultimately to the release of the boy, who is thankfully completely unharmed. But not everything has been resolved. After a second murder the story reaches an eerie climax that is both surprising and shocking and which also pulls off a neat trick in which the detective delivers the traditional long-winded explanation of how they deduced the identity of the villain, but only to themselves in the form on an interior monologue while being held at gunpoint. This emphasises how much respect Pronzini has for the traditional mystery form but also the realisation that times have changed and that the formula must be updated to continue to thrive. Pronzini always delivers the goods in terms of story and gives us something new and substantial to chew on too. If you are interested in finding out more about the novel, and the Nameless series, I recommend the review by Mike over at his blog, Only Connect.
I have a new page devoted to the “Nameless” series which you can read by clicking here.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘novel that involves transportation’ category as ‘Nameless’ spends such a lot of time travelling in his and his girlfriend’s car: