Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why do you keep stumbling over dead bodies, Mr... er, what is your name again?

The following is a post originally posted in May, but which was removed when Blogger went down and had yet to be restored.

It’s rare that you pick up a book and finish reading it on the same day, but that’s what happened with me and Bill Pronzini’s Scattershot, which I finished late last night. I simply couldn’t put the book down. Everything I liked in my last Pronzini adventure, Hoodwink, was in here, and somehow, Pronzini manages to tell a far more complex story in about 50 pages less than in Hoodwink. The result is a fast-paced, exciting, and engrossing read that I simply couldn’t put down, and it is the newest entry in Impossible Crime Month.

I guess it’s just one of those weeks for Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective. It starts with him jogging in the park on Sunday, at the suggestion of Kerry Wade, and coming to the conclusion that jogging is for jerks. The week does not remain quiet for long, however, as Nameless is hired by three people for three different jobs, and in each scenario, an impossible crime results. First, he is hired to find a woman and serve her with a court summons. Before he can get far on that case, he is hired to follow a businessman who is accused by his wife of theft and infidelity. Finally, to end the week off, he is hired to guard a room full of wedding presents. The result is fascinating—it’s as though three short stories were intertwined and constantly interrupting each other. However, let’s take a look at the plot strands individually:

The first impossible scenario Nameless comes across is while following the businessman, who camps out on a lookout in a park, as Nameless observes the car for a half hour. Something about the stillness seems wrong, and when security shows up, Nameless explains the situation. They go to the car and find that the businessman has disappeared from his locked vehicle, but there is dried blood on the seats! Who would murder the man and steal his body? And how was it done? It’s an impossible crime, with an ultimately satisfying solution. However, during the course of this investigation, the dead man’s wife, whose mental stability is questionable, decides to sue Nameless for criminal negligence, and it’s just one of the misfortunes to befall him in this book.

The second impossible crime occurs when Nameless tracks down the woman who is to be sued. He spies her entering  her cottage, and follows her, when a shot rings out! He rushes inside and sees the woman in question standing over her secretary, having fainted while standing up. He’s convinced she’s innocent of the crime, but all the other entries in the house are locked from the inside! He quickly tumbles to the solution and explains how the locked room trick worked to the police. The explanation’s a good one.

Finally, while guarding wedding presents, Nameless hears the crash of glass inside the room and breaks down the door. The room is empty, there’s a giant hole in the glass, and the ring that was supposed to be given to the bride has been spirited away! But there’s a problem—the pieces of broken glass are lying on the outside! Therefore, the glass was broken from indoors, and either way, we have ourselves an impossible crime! While the solution to this case is good, it also relies a bit too much on coincidence.

The second and third impossible crimes seem almost like their own short stories, because Nameless tumbles to everything quickly. However, they’re set up earlier in the week, and the first problem takes longer to solve, as Nameless solves it after solving the second case. It makes for fascinating reading, as these strands of plot are separate, and yet intertwined.

The story seems to be, in many ways, a direct follow-up to Hoodwink, as Nameless is still romancing Kerry Wade, but their relationship reaches a rocky point. Kerry is busy with work, going to several dinners and lunches with the boss, and Nameless becomes furiously jealous in the course of the story. He tells himself it’s silly to be jealous and tries to force himself to see things from Kerry’s perspective, but he just can’t do it, as his jealousy and the influence of Kerry’s parents seems to drive an ever-widening wedge between the two. This dramatic aspect is done very well indeed, as Pronzini yet again balances out a good plot with genuinely interesting character development.

Poor Nameless really has a trying week here, as the press eagerly smears his name and he finds himself battling to keep his license. Mrs. Hornback, wife of the murdered millionaire, threatens to sue him for criminal negligence and more or less implies that Nameless has stolen the $100,000 she accused her husband of stealing first, although she doesn’t phrase it that way outright. Nameless finds that pressure is being applied for his license to be revoked, and if that wasn’t enough, he gets himself involved in more impossible scenarios. This delights the press, who finally comment on the tragic condition that is J. B. Fletcher syndrome— you know, one person keeps stumbling over dead bodies, stolen jewels, and the like over and over again and finally manage to solve it. That the press finally tumbles to it is in itself amusing, but the dark nature of the misfortunes falling on Nameless’ head prevents you from laughing out loud.

Overall, this book is quite possibly better than Hoodwink. It tells a more complex story in fewer pages, and as a result, it is really focused and plot-driven. Not that I minded the extensive character development of Hoodwink— it was actually very interesting, and, in fact, it proves central to understanding the events in Scattershot. The character development almost becomes part of the plot, as Nameless fights to preserve his good name and also fights to keep his lady friend. Whether he succeeds or not is up to the reader to find out.

I highly recommend reading Hoodwink first, and then following it up with Scattershot. They’re two of the finest modern novels I’ve read in a long time, and judging by them alone, I’m willing to call Pronzini one of the best writers around today.

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