Monday, May 09, 2011

Name, please?

You know, I’m worried that after today’s review, it will seem like I’m stealing my reading list directly from the blog Detection by Moonlight, penned by fellow mystery aficionado TomCat (a.k.a. LastCenturyDetective). But believe me, when I saw him post about the Bill Pronzini novel Hoodwink, I was quite shocked. It was the same novel I plucked off my library’s shelves merely a day or two before! I read a short story by Pronzini a while back (which dealt with an impossible crime), and I liked it enough to want to get acquainted with Pronzini in novel form. I was hoping the choice to review Hoodwink would come as a surprise, but once again, LCD has jumped the gun on that one, in another brilliant post on his blog. “Curses!” I cried, convinced that the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler had played a nasty practical joke on me. The book remained unread a little longer than I’d originally planned. But that’s enough of that— let’s get to the main event, my fifth review in as many days: Bill Pronzini’s Hoodwink.

The story is a fine one. Pronzini’s Nameless Detective is sitting in his office, reading a story in a pulp magazine by Russell Dancer, when suddenly, Dancer himself walks through his door! Dancer invites Nameless to a pulp convention, which for the private eye is like being invited for a party in Heaven: three days amongst a wide variety of legendary pulp writers, editors, and cover artists, not to mention all sorts of booksellers coming together to sell old pulps! There’s a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy condition attached, however: Dancer shows Nameless a letter he got, accusing him of plagiarizing a story 30 years ago by adapting it into a movie without permission. It turns out six people, part of a group of pulp writers who called themselves the Pulpeteers (although they include an editor and cover artist among their group) all got the same accusatory note. Nameless is basically engaged to keep an eye out, just in case…

So Nameless attends the convention, and witnesses the tensions rise until they suddenly explode: Nameless finds a corpse in a locked room, with Dancer standing over the body, gun in hand, moments after the shot is heard!!! Dancer is arrested, but insists he is innocent. Only Nameless believes Dancer, and so he takes it upon himself to prove his innocence. Before long, he stumbles over a second locked-room murder. Both are well-explained— the first is a simple explanation of the sort I adore, and the second is deliciously complex, plausible and workable. The culprit’s identity is surprising to say the least, but unfortunately, the evidence pointing in X’s direction as the culprit is of the J. B. Fletcher sort: “A-ha! But I never said Lord Ragamuffin had three sips of the soup! That proves that you, Truman Gallifunkel, had to be the murderer!” Still, in the grand scheme of things, the novel is such a delightful read, this is a minor and easily forgiven flaw.

Nameless, as it turns out, became a detective because of his love for old pulp stories:

“What would you say if I told you that I became a private detective because I wanted to be like the private eyes I read about in the pulps?”
“You mean rough and hard-boiled?”
“No. Just a private eye— doing a job, helping people in trouble.”
“In other words, being a hero.”
“Well… in a way, yes.”
“Then I’d say you made a good choice. I’m partial to heroes myself, all kinds, even if it’s not fashionable any more. The world would be a much better place if there were more heroes and fewer antiheroes. Not to mention fewer politicians.”
I liked that too.

That final comment from Nameless could sum up my reaction right there: “I liked that too.” Pronzini’s detective is wonderful. First off, he’s a realistic character: he has a pot belly, for instance, instead of being Jean Claude Van Damme’s rival in physical fitness. He’s also kind, courteous, and caring, and doesn’t behave like a flat-out jackass. Observe, for instance, his reaction to hostile comments from a police officer:

There were still some things I wanted to know about besides the alibi breakdown: the typewriter that had been found in Colodny’s hotel room; the bottle of rye whiskey in Dancer’s room. But he was pretty upset, face all blood-dark, and provoking him would only get me upset too. His cutting remarks had already begun to fray the edges of my temper—the one about my “goddamn wop face” in particular. We had traded ethnic insults for thirty years, but this was the first time either of us had ever put malice into one.
“Okay,” I said. “I’m going. Maybe you’ll decide to be a human being again one of these days. Not to mention a friend. Let me know if that happens.”

Wow! Unlike Marlowe, who would strike back with a sadistic comment and then come whining to the reader when the policeman popped him one, Nameless realizes that the officer in question, a good friend of his, is having a bad day. He does not press him any more than is necessary: the insults have hurt him, and he has no intention of souring a friendship just to even the score. And in that lovely passage, Pronzini won me completely over. Any lingering doubts I had were gone. Nameless is a sympathetic character, and I could even see part of my character in him. His love for old pulp magazines is the same love I feel for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and for the authors who emulated the style.  In the words of John Dickson Carr, who gave a young, unknown Pronzini positive reviews: “Though he professes admiration for the ancient pulp fiction of Hammett and Chandler, this unnamed sleuth bears no resemblance to dull, swollen-headed snarlers like Spade or Marlowe.” How true!

There is also a remarkable amount of character development here, but unlike much modern fiction, it is interesting. The plot has captured your imagination, and Nameless is a wonderful character, so you naturally want to see more of him. So finding out about his love for pulps, hearing about his friend’s problems in his sex life, and watching Nameless fall in love turns out to be interesting and genuinely enjoyable.

In the end, this is the kind of hard-boiled fiction that I adore. It doesn’t ignore that little thing called plot (the one here is delightfully complex), and its main character is fascinating, just as he should be. Nameless is a decent sort that you really get to like, and it’s interesting how he feels like a realistic character, even though you never find out his name. The ways Pronzini works around this lack of a name makes for one of the book’s interesting features, and somehow, the character not having a name feels right. Somehow, I just don’t think any name would do such a marvellous character justice.

One last thing: I considered sharing fragments in the book where Pronzini seems to anticipate the psychologists’ take on the book. I can already see Dr. Sigmund Von Hornswoggle’s commentary: “He falls in love with the daughter of a pulp author, in effect, romancing with the pulp fiction he has been brought up on, releasing himself from the psychological prison of his inability to cope with…” Nameless, in fact, muses on what a dirty subconscious he must have, and then reprimands the nonsense he’s come up with. It’s funny, advances the romantic angle, and serves as fascinating character development. Ultimately, I’ve left these delightful bits in the book, for the reader to discover for his or her own self.

Overall, this has got to be one of the best hardboiled mysteries I’ve ever read. It is a love poem to the pulp stories of the past and to locked-room mysteries, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


  1. Bill Pronzini is one of those writers, along side Rex Stout and William DeAndrea, who showed that plot-orientated puzzle mysteries and hardboiled private eye stories are not mutually excluded. This book also gave me an idea or two, but I'm saving those for a later blog post.

  2. That's a good way to phrase it. I'm definitely going to give his books another read, but that has to wait after I finish the book I started last night.

  3. Wow, you’re really trimming the fat off your TBR-pile. I hope to have another review up in the next few days, of a collection of short stories that I have been reading over a longer period of time. It's not a conventional bundle of mysteries, but interesting enough to dedicate a blog post to.

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