THE SNATCH (1971) by Bill Pronzini

Pronzini_Snatch_sphereAfter 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.

Pronzini_The-Snatch_pbOver 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 Pronzini_The-Snatch_hbkeeps 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:


***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Bill Pronzini, Friday's Forgotten Book, Private Eye, San Francisco. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to THE SNATCH (1971) by Bill Pronzini

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I’m so glad you’re calling attention to this series. In fact, I’ve been meaning to spotlight one of those novels. It’s had a real influence in the genre, and although not every entry is stellar, it’s a consistently solid series I think.

  2. Colin says:

    The only Nameless book I have is Case File which I downloaded as an ebook onto the laptop. Rather looking forward to dipping into it now.

    • Really hope you enjoy it – Pronzini’s short stories are just as good as his novels and he is wonderfully varied in his approach, with such an evident love of the detective story.

      • Colin says:

        I’m fond of the short format anyway so thought it might be a good entry point – hope so.
        I won’t get to them for a bit though as I’ve just started on Stout’s Zeck trilogy, which I think I mentioned I had lined up a while ago.

        • Ah, you have a real treat ahead of you my freinds. By the way, NAKED CITY Blu-ray should be on its way to you, just got a notification from Arrow.

          • Colin says:

            Now that’s a most welcome piece of news! Thanks very much!

          • No Colin, thank you 🙂 And just you wait and see what I’ve done for the KILLERS Blu!

          • Colin says:

            Very much looking forward to that one too – I got my pre-order in the other day as it happens.

          • I haven’t seen a proof, but allegedly I’ll have the first item int eh booklet. Should be a really impressive set – Siodmak really was very good! Doing a post on Spiral Staircase in fact (for Halloween) – just reading the source novel and discovered that the lead isn’t mute, a very interesting change I think.

          • Colin says:

            Good choice for the witching season. I have the book (unread) knocking around somewhere, but I never knew about that change. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on how effective the book is then.

          • Am enjoying the book so far, set on the Welsh border and more or less int eh 1930s as far as I can tell.

  3. Graham Powell says:

    The Snatch is a very good book, but I don’t think it’s typical of the series as a whole. The tone of the book is more like Ross Macdonald than it would eventually become. I don’t think Pronzini really found his own voice until Undercurrent, the 3rd or 4th book, and the one that followed it, Blowback, was really in Pronzini’s wheelhouse, taking place in the mountains east of San Francisco, a place that he’s really made his own.

    • Thanks very much Graham – I have been a bit hit and miss with my reading of the series but now plan to go through it as chronologically as possible – review of Blowback to follow fairly soon I hope.

  4. I agree with Graham. Pronzini’s style changed over time. You’ll find BLOWBACK a very different book than THE SNATCH.

  5. Richard says:

    A great choice, Sergio. I’ve read them all, or perhaps 90% of them, and it’s a favorite series. When asked, during a GOH interview at Left Coast Crime in Monterey last Spring about if Nameless’ name was Bill, Pronzini smiled and nodded then asked for the next question.

    George is right the series hit it’s stride in the 4th book. I wish some one would reprint the series in paperback, many are very hard to find these days, discouraging new readers. When my wife wanted to try one, I gave her SHACKLES to read. She loved it and has since gone back and read several of the earlier books (which was my intent, of course)

    • Thanks veru much Richard. I think the first I read was Breakdown, in Italian, and then I read several novellas (I remember liking Booktaker a lot) and short stories but it’s alla been a bit of a mess – I have at least 20 of them of my shelves so I will be putting them in the right order!

    • Graham Powell says:

      SHACKLES is the most unusual of the Nameless books, since a large part of it features the detective imprisoned in a cabin (not a spoiler). It’s really good.

      BTW, I hope I didn’t imply that the first few books are worse than the later ones. They’re actually very good, just different.

      • Thanks Graham – I agree, Shackles is a fascinating turning point and just one of the ways that Pronzini has shown his extraordinary versatility – read it ages ago and look forward to creeping up to it in some semblance of order this time! Next one is definitely The Vanished

  6. Yvette says:

    Never read any though of course, I’ve heard of them for years, but your enthusiasm for the series is catching, Sergio. I’ve added a few of the recommended titles to my TBR list. Checked out your page link – there are certainly enough to choose from. I’ll have to see what my library has.

    P.S. I hope you’ll find the time to read a couple of the Barry Maitland books, I’d love to know what you think of them.

  7. tracybham says:

    Pronzini is a favorite author in our household. My husband has every book in the series. He purchases the new one when it comes out and then reads the previous one. I don’t know what he will do when Pronzini stops the series. He has agonized over that in the past. I have read up to ILLUSIONS, I think, but hope to read more soon. Great review and overview of the series.

    • Thanks TracyK – I don’t have them all (will ahve to skip from the second to the fourth for now) so may have to skip a few as I attempt a more or less chronological approach, but hope to backfill as I go!

  8. Sergio, not read a Bill Pronzini but your review and the comments are goading me in his direction soon than I thought I’d read his books. I’m tempted to read his short stories first.

  9. I recently read Two Spot, a mash-up he did with another author, but on the whole this is unexplored territory for me. One day I’ll get to him…

    • Apparently it was Wilcox that snuck in the reference to the first name of “Nameless” actually being ‘Bill’ – this has been ignored ever since though 🙂

      • Todd Mason says:

        Though Pronzini, as with Marcia Muller with Sharon McCone, has basically admitted on several occasions that “nameless” Bill is basically a version of himself…very much down to his pulp magazine collecting. Hence the added charm of the McCone/Nameless work…even ahead of their other collaborations.

        For whatever reason, the primary paperback house doing the Nameless books in the US for some years was the ill-fated Paperjacks, who did rather cheap-looking editions, and that probably didn’t help sales records nor market penetration for BP…I should check to see who has put them out since. For some reason, I don’t remember THE SNATCH being the first, so memory is already suspect…

        • Forge Books took over from Carrol & Graaf about 10 years ago – I think initially the series was published by Random House and St Martin’s Press. His books have never been easy enough to get in the UK, that’s for sure.

          • Todd Mason says:

            I was thinking of THE STALKER, Pronzini’s first novel of any sort, as somehow relevant to the series. Meanwhile, I’ve pulled out the first Hubin BEST DETECTIVE (1970, collecting 1969 stories), the first one after Boucher’s death, which has the short story form of “The Snatch”…

          • Not read Stalker – and I envy you that, I have not read the short story version (Hoch was very nice about how successful he thought the expansion to novel was) – are they close?

          • Todd Mason says:

            Meanwhile, you can get a copy of GRAVEYARD PLOTS, the Pronzini self-selected best-of more or less, for L2 and change from Ama UK, if you’re willing, as of tonight…

          • Thanks for that Todd – ordered! [even though I hate Amazon, I totally forgive you 🙂 plus it’s a re-seller, so I feel less bad]

          • Todd Mason says:

            For a reasonable Amaz India price, Prashant would have to opt for the Kindle edition, at 222 rupees (currently $3 US and change).

          • That is a great price Prashant (I’ll have to get an e-readr soon, I know I will …)

  10. One of those I’ve-always-meant-to-read authors. Thanks to you, I’ll remedy that sooner rather than later.

  11. Santosh Iyer says:

    Though nothing outstanding, I found it good and enjoyable with a surprise ending. I also liked the writing style which made for easy and fast reading. I finished the book in a single sitting..

    • I think that is a very fair assessment of yours Santosh – it is very much a genre book, through and through, but a very good one – what is interesting about the series is the extent to which the anonymous hero changes and is affected by his own personal history and what he does for a living.

  12. Pingback: THE VANISHED (1973) by Bill Pronzini | Tipping My Fedora

  13. Pingback: Ross Macdonald's 'The Moving Target': A History in 25 Covers | CrimeReads

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