Thursday, March 15, 2012

Forgotten Books: Savages by Bill Pronzini

SAVAGES by Bill Pronzini

F. Paul Wilson once noted that private eye fiction offers the reader a snapshot of a certain time and place. We read Raymond Chandler not only for his fine prose but also for his portraits of Hollywood in the Thirties and Forties. Ross Macdonald showed us a very different Los Angeles due to the differences in time and temperment. And if you want to know what it was like on the angry lower-class streets of Depression Hollywoodland, you could do worse than read a lesser writer named John K. Butler, whose hardboiled cab driver functioned as a private eye without a license.

Today the definitive take on San Francisco and environs are the Nameless novels and stories by Bill Pronzini. The influence here, if there is a singuar one, would be Hammett and not Chandler. Nameless is working class, competent and only occasionally up for doing the kind of favors that the more romantic Marlowe did so often. Nameless, like the Contintental Op, is a professional not a dashing knight.

A few decades from now the Nameless books will give readers a fascinating look at the past thirty-forty years of life in San Francisco. The social upheavels, the econmically and culturally stratified society, the endless experiments in modern living.

And you can find all this and much more in the latest Nameless novel SAVAGES. Pronzini tells three stories here. He goes back to work for a wealthy client he never much liked only after she convinces him that there's at least a possibility that her sister was murdered by her husband, a man Nameless couldn't turn anything sinister about when he first investigated him. Nameless not only comes to suspect the husband but several other people who were in the life of the dead woman. He draws these characters with clear and deserved contempt.

The second story deals with an arsonist pursued by Jake Runyon, the partner in Nameless' agency. The trail leads him to a small town where the feel is that of a western town of a hundred years ago. Pronzini, writer of many fine westerns, seems especially at home here with the good lawman and the bad lawman and the townspeople eager to get stampeded into believing any piece of gossip they hear. Interesting that he mixes this sensibility with that of young people into drugs, violence and MTV ennui.

The third story concerns Nameless' woman Kerry and the aftermath of her surgery for breast cancer. She's been pronounced all right but nobody who's had cancer ever quite believes that. Pronzini is especially adept at dealing realistically and unsentimentally with the subject.

Thus we encounter three kinds of savages here--those of the city elite--those of rural blue collar life--and those of the human body, the cancer cells that destroy without fear or favor.

Another excellent entry in one of the most consistently excellent series of the past forty years.


Anonymous said...

Pronzini's Nameless books are a treasure trove of good reading. My favorite of the dozen or more I've read is Shackles. If you've ever wondered what critics mean when they call a book "claustrophobic", I think this one will define it for you. I've read it several times.
As a resident of the Bay Area and a state wide traveler in CA, I can assure you that Bill Pronzini's descriptions of the towns and cities, beaches and mountains that Nameless visits are dead on.
These books need to be more widely read!
Oh, and check out his stand-alone A Wasteland of Strangers too. Fantastic!

Bill Pronzini said...

Thanks, Ed. And thanks Anonymous. All the kind words much appreciated.

R E Kaspar said...

Bill's ideological (Liberal) rants in Savages are like pieces of egg shells in an otherwise perfectly cooked scrambled eggs.