Thursday, March 29, 2012

Madness! Madness!

Hello everybody and welcome once more to another (and this time, the final) special edition of At the Scene of the Crime! Today, I am joined by TomCat, fellow blogger and for today, partner in crime. Our blogs are somewhat similar— we review, we occasionally make up clever ways to be lazy by posting things that pose as articles or lists… and we tend to stay in the “good old” days of crime. So naturally, what could be better to review than a novel by Margaret Millar, an author I’ve come to adore?

Except… the timing for that didn’t really work out and it didn’t seem likely TomCat would be able to get a Millar novel. So how about a novel by her husband, the famous creator of Lew Archer, Ross Macdonald? Except… well, in a mix-up right out of a Donald E. Westlake novel, the book turned out to have gone AWOL.

But wait— Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar were married authors, and Ross Macdonald wrote a series of novels about a private eye… so where on earth can we find a modern-day successor to Macdonald? Why, in the work of Bill Pronzini! Pronzini truly is a gem—I have never walked away from one of his books disappointed. He always impresses me with the quality of his writing and the way he plots his books, all while drawing out sharp characters. He is one of the best mystery writers at work in modern day. I was all set, and at last, we decided on a book: Savages, a Nameless Detective novel.

TomCat, thanks a lot for joining me!

***

Thanks for having me back, Patrick!

I appreciate that you took a passive stand when confronted with my laxness, which must have been frustrating when everyone else involved were flooding your inbox with their contributions to these crossovers writings, and this probably would have driven someone else to the airport to hop on a plane destined for this nook of the world – simply to throttle me with packthread while forcing me to read the book I was supposed to. Or at the very least a bounty would have been put on my head. So all I can do is mutter mea culpa and tackle this book ASAP!

As Patrick noted above, our respective blogs are not entirely dissimilar from one another, digital mausoleums erected as tributes for the often unjustly forgotten and neglected players of what was once referred to as the grandest game in the world, but, being the ghouls that we are, we occasionally fling a live-specimen in those dark catacombs.

Bill Pronzini often finds himself visiting the dust covered memories and ghosts of his predecessors, whenever we discuss one of his novels, but does not mind to be associated with them – as he’s one of the few modern mystery writers who’s not only aware of the genre’s history but also proud to be part of its linage and it shows in his work. The fact is, Bill Pronzini, as modern and well-characterized his novels are, belongs to another era, when detective stories were still detective stories, instead of fictionalized psychology textbooks, and this attitude often seeps through the pages – whether he unapologetically sets-up a classically-styled locked room mystery (Hoodwink, 1982) or lets an old-fashioned ploy loose in a very realistically drawn, modern-day world (Nightcrawlers, 2005).

Author Bill Pronzini
Unsurprisingly, people who love detective stories and know a thing or two about them are often taken in with Pronzini’s writing because they give us the best of both worlds. They are well-written, often cleverly plotted and sharp characterization without being intrusive (i.e. drowning the reader for hundreds of pages on end with details of the protagonists troubled childhood). I sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable when I have to write another positive notice of one of his novels (which may be construed as bias), but all but one of the novels I have read were excellent and I’m afraid this review won’t be much different.

***

The whole plot gets underway when the Nameless Detective (once again, partly named— he’s referred to as “Bill” several times) and his wife Kerry are slowly getting over a cancer scare. However, we are informed that according to the doctor, Kerry’s cancer can officially be referred to in the past tense—and we also find out a large chunk of revelations that I presume were given out in the previous book, Mourners. (So readers might want to check out that book before this one—why don’t I learn and just start reading these books in chronological order already?)

But Nameless isn’t one to sit around doing nothing, so as soon as he can, he goes to the agency he founded. There, he is informed by his partner, the outspoken Tamara, that he got a telephone message from a rather odious woman he dealt with a few years ago, Celeste Ogden. Her sister Nancy was then engaged to a man named Brandon Mathias, a computer mogul that Celeste insisted was crooked. Despite a thorough background check, Nameless couldn’t find any dirt on him, which brought the professional relationship between him and Mrs. Ogden to a close on a rather sour note.

Circumstances have changed since then—a short while ago, while Brandon was at a conference in Chicago, Mrs. Nancy Mathias tumbled down a set of stairs and broke her neck. The police immediately decide it was an accident. Mrs. Ogden is convinced it was murder, and manages to persuade the Nameless Detective to look into the case.

***

In the meanwhile, the agencies field operative and lone wolf, Jake Runyon, takes care of the routine chores that make up their daily business and serving a subpoena to one Jerry Belsize at his farm, located in a rural area of San Francisco, provides him exactly with the kind of job he needed for the moment – shaking the memories of his dead wife and estranged son that Kerry's cancer scare brought back to the surface off him during a long car ride.

When he arrives at the small country town, he finds what appears to be a community of ghosts and his suspicion is really aroused when he finds traces of a hasty departure, but as he inquisitively begins to look around the place he turns up more than he bargained for: a body hanging in one of the sheds and a good whack on the head.

The next day Jake Runyon learns from the local authority that his quarry, Jerry Belsize, is now also fugitive from the law – branded as a firebug (in a series of local arson cases) and a murderer. But the big city gumshoe suspects that there's more afoot in that small town than the police originally anticipated.

There you have it: two cases that confront Nameless and Runyon with present-day savages, both urban and rural.

***

One of the more interesting moves that Bill Pronzini has made in his Nameless Detective series is giving Nameless partners in his detective agency. Early books, such as Blowback or Hoodwink, feature a Nameless Detective who’s very much a traditional Lone Wolf private eye. In more recent books, he has to cooperate with others to solve the case, often sharing his thoughts with his wife Kerry and possibly his partner Tamara. So it seems that Jake Runyon has unofficially taken over the “lone wolf” position, despite being part of a firm. I don’t recall the cases he tackles requiring teamwork to the extent that Nameless’ do. The recent death of his wife has profoundly affected him and the way he interacts with others. You see this attitude in Savages—when he gets hit over the head, he doesn’t inform the agency about it right away because he doesn’t think he needs to: a sort of they-have-better-things-to-care-about mentality.

So in a way, I found the case Runyon investigated to be more like the cases of Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald. It’s a very hardboiled story set in a small town, complete with an uncooperative policeman who abuses his power because, hell, he can. And this story arc has a few chapters written from the perspective of the firebug, and these scenes are intense! When I got to Chapter 12 (the first of these scenes) it was via audiobook, and the narrator captured it brilliantly. It left me wondering just what I’d heard— was it one person with split personalities fighting each other? Was it two or more people working in collaboration? Was it a nightmarish semi-dream from the firebug’s perspective? Whatever it was, it was wonderfully done—it kept in touch with the hardboiled tone of that plot thread and instantly grabbed my attention. It was more or less from that point that I began thinking more about Runyon’s case than Nameless’!

I also intensely loved the conclusion to this story. Bill Pronzini takes a motive that I’m usually not fond of at all — I’ve already explained why to you via e-mail, but doing so without spoilers is nigh impossible — and to this motive he adds his own special twist. The motive has a mad sense of genius behind it, and it is not being used as a vehicle for obvious social commentary (a trap modern authors fall into altogether too often, and it has become intensely dull). And the explanation does keep very much in line with the theme of savagery.

There’s only one real problem with the ending to this plot thread: I found it incredibly easy to figure out the identity behind the deranged firebug’s voice. And this is no fault of the audiobook reader, who did a valiant job attempting to disguise this. But it simply didn’t work in the end— after Chapter 12 I was convinced So-and-So was implicated, and there was only a minor element of surprise at the revelation.

***

Yes, the gradual addition of new lawyers to Nameless’ personality has been, IMHO, one of the greatest achievement in the characterization department of the genre and Pronzini aptly labeled this progression “as an ongoing biography of a man first and a detective second.” You can see this growth as a character by contrasting his personality and life with those of his partners, Runyon and Tamara, which, for example, comes in this book, when Nameless takes his family to an exhibition to check out the work of an artist whose name turned up in his investigation – while Runyon tackled his case with only wits and brawn as his partners.

On one hand, we have Runyon who took on this lone wolf persona after losing his wife and son and on the other we have Nameless who shed his after becoming a loving husband and doting father. This was reflected in the way Nameless combined his work with some quality time with the family and Runyon they-have-better-things-to-care-about mentality that you already mentioned, even occasionally showing a glimpse of what could be construed as an aversion to life. Character-wise, I thought that this was one of the most interesting patterns to emerge from this novel bar the revealing of the titular savages.

Plot-wise, I think you hit every important point of Runyon’s case on the head and buried them neck deep in the woodwork – leaving me with Nameless’ case to wrap up.

Well, I have to admit that the glow emanating from the firebug case also caught my full attention, but the murder of Mrs. Nancy Mathias is not without interest and arguably ends on an even more tragic note than the other one. It’s also a bit more classically-styled and slower moving story than the more violent outbursts in the small town Runyon is visiting. As the story progresses, a picture emerges of a woman who had a complete and privileged life, from a well-filled bank account to having experienced actual love, but was kissed out of this fairytale dream by a cold blooded reptile in the guise of a charming prince – and from there her life was a downward spiral that ended at the bottom of her own stairs.

Nameless eventually gets to the truth, but knowing what happened and being able to prove it are two completely separate things and this results in a tragic footnote to this case as well as an observation from Nameless that could have been the parting message in a Cowboy Bebop episode: “Justice? You tell me.”

***

The case of Mrs. Nancy Mathias left me very angry. Here was a woman who had a very good life. She was doing well for herself. She had a good social life, plenty of friends, and a good relationship with her sister. Then along comes Brandon Mathias and he slowly takes over her life until she becomes little more than an automaton, doing all his bidding without question. He poisons her life in such a way that she doesn’t realise it until it is too late. Tamara, reading over the late woman’s journal entries, becomes furious at the man and I have to say I shared her feelings there. The reason Nancy “had” to die is so cold-hearted and brutal—I simply cannot understand how a man could possibly come to such a conclusion as happened in this case.

From a purely-plot perspective, though, this reason isn’t too surprising—I had thought of a very small variation on it as soon as the journals were read, but the more the plot progressed the clearer a picture I got of events. So, is this Pronzini’s biggest surprise? Far from it. But is it a good read! You bet!

One aspect in particular that I wanted to mention was the character of Tamara. The first time I met her was in Schemers, and I took an instant dislike to her brashness, her way of flaunting her sex life to anyone who would listen, etc., especially because she didn’t really do much of anything in that particular novel. But in Savages, we get a lot more insight into her character, why she is as outspoken as she is, her dissatisfaction with the things that are supposed to make her happy. A far more interesting and positive portrait of Tamara emerges in this book, and I think I’m warming up to her character a bit more. Out of the three partners (Nameless, Jake, and Tamara), she’s my least favourite, but at least I’m starting to accept her.

***


I’m afraid I have to reserve my judgment on Tamara Corbin, because I have been mainly tailing the incarnation of the Nameless Detective from the 1980s, when he was just beginning to cast-off his lone crusader armor and began teaming up with his ex-cop buddy Eberhardt, and bumped into Runyon and Tamara in just two novels – and her part in them was significantly smaller than that of her colleagues. But I have warmed up to the troubled Jake Runyon, which shows how eclectic my taste in detective fiction has become. Not that long ago, I would have shunned hardboiled stories as if they were typing lessons, but now I seem to be able to appreciate the sagas of these modern-day knights who walk those mean streets alone.

Not quite sure what brought this change about (aside from coming across and trying new authors), but I’m glad I was open for it at the time.

***

I know that personally, Pronzini’s work has played a major role in my acceptance of the hardboiled school of detective fiction. If you take a look at my review of Hoodwink, you’ll see that I was dazzled by the book in general, but also, I took some potshots at Raymond Chandler and Phillip Marlowe in particular—even though much of the book reads like a love poem to the heroes in the pulps like Marlowe that Nameless grew up with. But over time, I learned more about hardboiled fiction, got some excellent suggestions from Barry Ergang, learned to avoid Mike Hammer, and found out it was possible to enjoy a Chandler novel. I might not feel the same love for Chandler that Pronzini does, but I have learned to accept him. Had I been told I would be saying this two years ago, I would have laughed in the prospective psychic’s face.

But… I digress. Let’s get back to the book.

Overall, Savages is an excellent read that combines two mysteries fairly well. The only major downfall of this book is the mystery, which is pretty easily guessed. But even that doesn’t ruin the book, which is still an excellent and rather gripping read. The theme of savagery is very well-conveyed, and the characters are good as usual. Nameless is without doubt one of the all-time greatest fictional detectives, and it’s always plenty of fun to catch up with him, even if it’s not in strict chronological order. It’s somewhat unfortunate that his investigations this time around are overshadowed by the firebug case investigated by Jake Runyon… but it doesn’t make me want to go out into the streets, shaking my fist and shouting “PRONZIIIINIIIIIII!!!!!” in slow-motion. It just worked out that way, that’s all. Overall, I give the book 3 stars out of 4— but had the plot been a little more surprising, the book would have gotten more.

 Patrick's Rating: 3/4 stars

***

Now that I think about it, William DeAndrea should definitely be tagged as an accomplish in changing my attitude towards modern detective stories and motivating me to pick up post-GAD writers like Herbert Resnicow and Bill Pronzini (*) – who showed me that labels, styles and eras are only insuperable borders if you allow them to be impassable. I also assume that maturing helped me appreciate these stories more than I probably would have done when I first began reading detectives. *hears sardonic laughter all around me* OK, you may cross off maturity as a possible reason.

Anyway, I agree with your overall opinion of the book, especially on the characterization and the well-conveyed theme of savagery, but I have to differ with you on chipping off a point because it failed to pull to rug underneath your feet a la Agatha Christie – which is akin to me bashing book for the sole reason that the death of Mrs. Nancy Mathias has all the trimmings of a locked room mystery when it wasn’t. Pronzini obviously wasn’t aiming here for a traditional whodunit with an impossible crime element, but a pair of character-driven crime stories with only their environments (an upper crust family and a small town) to remind you of their predecessors. In a way, he does the same here as what he did in Nightcrawlers, i.e. dropping off classic plot-elements in a convincingly described, modern-day surrounding and watch how they work in such a setting. So I have to give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Tom Cat's Rating: 4/5 stars

So now we’ve got that out of the way, I have to share something that occurred to me while writing this final part of our joint review and you have to tell whether it’s absolutely brilliant or merely ingenious. I think we both agree that William DeAndrea was one of the most important mystery writer of the post-GAD writer and his untimely passing was a huge blow for the genre, but according to a posthumous collection of short stories, Murder – All Kinds (2003), he left behind an unfinished manuscript of a Matt Cobb novel – and someone could pick up the story where DeAndrea left it off and I think we are agreement who the best writer would be for that important job.

Note that I tapped my fingers together after typing that final part. I love to plot stuff! ;)

*= I was already familiar with a handful of his short stories, read in numerous anthologies, but finally began picking up his full-length novels after reading William DeAndrea.

2 comments:

  1. Nicely done chaps - I haven't read this one yet, Pronzini is a real master and I'm now looking forward to it more than ever. And of course he is probably a genius at collaboration too so maybe your final suggestion might truly lead somewhere - wouldn't that be GREAT!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent review, gentlemen. I'll be re-visiting the Pronzini line (in order, obviously) when my TBR pile gets a little smaller.

    ReplyDelete

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