I have quickly become highly enthusiastic over the work of Bill Pronzini, particularly his Nameless Detective series. Since reading Hoodwink, I’ve gone on to read several books by Pronzini— I consider him one of the finest talents in the mystery field today.
It surprised me somewhat to see Nameless named in Camouflage— Tamara, his partner, refers to him as “Bill” at one point. (Huh. I think I can guess where Pronzini got that one from.) No last name to report as of yet …
Simply put, Camouflage is a brilliant read. It is thrilling. It is fast-paced. Also, it is a genuine mystery. (More on that angle later.)
There are two main storylines here: the first occurs when the Nameless Detective gets a visit from a man named David Virden. He wishes to marry a Catholic woman named Judith LoPresti, a devout woman who cannot marry him until he annuls each of his last three marriages. The two most recent women were not a problem, but Virden can’t track down his first wife, and hires Nameless to do it for him. Virden is a nasty character, who makes no bones about it to Nameless that he is mainly after Judith’s money. As Nameless puts is:
“Nice guy, Virden . Full of compassion and the milk of human kindness. I wondered if he was as up-front about his motives with his devout intended. (…) I don’t have to like the agency’s clients, but on the other hand, we don’t need business badly enough to have to put up with greedy self-centered sexists who insist on red-flagging their shortcomings.”
Nameless decides to accept the job, and as it turns out, Tamara doesn’t have much trouble locating Virden’s first wife, Roxanne McManus. Nameless shows up, explains what he wants, only to have the woman toss him out. He reports to Virden, who decides to have a one-on-one chat with his ex… but a while later, Virden telephones back, furious: the woman in question is not his ex-wife at all, he claims, and he threatens to stop payment on his cheques and a potential lawsuit. But just as suddenly, Virden disappears, and his fiancée hires Nameless to track him down. Thus begins a series of events that puts Nameless on the track of what I can only describe as Pure Evil.
In the second storyline, we see a lot more of Jake Runyon (one of the agency’s operatives) and Bryn Darby, a woman whose left side of her face is paralyzed. Bryn’s young son, Bobby, lives with his father, and Bryn suspects the man has been abusing the child. Bobby is uncommunicative, has a fractured arm and several bruises, and he refuses to talk much about them. Jake manages to get through to him and finds out that not all is what it seems, and someone else may be behind the boy’s injuries.
In due course, the situation explodes into murder, and rather surprisingly, this is a genuinely solvable mystery somewhat in the traditional vein. I solved it, but I have to give Pronzini credit: he didn’t go for the “easy” or “tragic” solution that a poor crime show like CSI would. He shows far more ingenuity, and I solved it more or less through a hunch. A good, subtle clue is given, but the major and conclusive clue is given a few pages before the culprit is revealed. The solution is genuinely tragic (but I refuse to say more or I’ll find myself giving the game away).
Pronzini writes with such deft skill that issues such as “Is this fair clueing?” are rendered immaterial. Again, he outdoes his contemporaries by achieving a wonderful balance between characterization and plotting— and with the second plot strand, characterization and plotting go hand-in-hand on more than one occasion, which ensures that there will never be a dull moment for the reader.
I was surprised at a few things in this novel. First and foremost, I found myself liking Tamara. I was rather harsh about her character when I wrote about Schemers, but I admitted it was only a one-book sample. The events of Schemers and the book that followed, Betrayers (which is on my reading pile), seem to have subdued her a little. She isn’t nearly as brash and outspoken and she has gained a little bit of wisdom the hard way. Her character is far more sympathetic and interesting here.
Jake Runyon, like in Schemers, is wonderful. His relationship with Bryn is genuinely touching, and they will tread dangerous waters together by the story’s end. The child abuse angle is handled well— Pronzini doesn’t get disturbingly detailed about the abuse, nor do we get psychotic interior monologues from the abuser or their victim. Pronzini alternates between various viewpoints again—this time, Bryn Darby is one of the characters we follow—but once more, first person narration is reserved only for Nameless.
Camouflage also has a heavier religious angle than the other Nameless books I’ve read. At first, it’s somewhat critical, as Nameless tells the reader his beliefs. We also get to see the unpleasant David Virden planning to marry for money, but cynically and half-heartedly joining up with the Catholics as a prerequisite, treating it as though he were joining a club to get the free shirt and beer. But Pronzini also offers another side to the question, with the character of Judith LoPresti, a devout Catholic who seems like a genuinely nice person. And there’s this lovely bit near the very end of the book which spoke to me as a Catholic myself:
“Her abiding faith was the foundation of her strength. It seems to me that people who are deeply religious have an edge on the rest of us, not necessarily because it makes them better human beings but because it allows them to cope with pain and suffering on a different level of perception. Life must be a whole lot simpler and easier to take when you believe without question in God and His mercy.”
Overall, Camouflage is an excellent and welcome addition to the Nameless Detective series. Once again, hats off to Bill Pronzini for the fantastic work!