Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Strangers by Bill Pronzini Gravetapping: Ben Boulden

Gravetapping by Ben Boulden

Posted: 16 Sep 2014 05:04 PM PDT
Strangers is the 39th—by my count—Nameless Detective novel, and it is something of a throwback. Nameless revisits his past, in both technique—he is once again a lone-wolf detective without benefit of Tamara, Jake, or Kerry—and fact.

His past comes back in the form of Cheryl Rosmond. Cheryl is a former lover. The relationship crumbled twenty year earlier, and Cheryl now lives in the dusty mining boom town of Mineral Springs, Nevada. She is a widow, and her son, Cody, is accused of three rapes. The evidence is circumstantial, but strong. A witness—a desert hermit named Max Stendreyer—saw Cody leaving the area of the final rape, and the ski mask and knife the rapist used were found in his Jeep.

Cheryl, in desperation, calls Nameless. She has hired an attorney—the only lawyer in town who will take the case and criminal law isn’t his specialty—and she needs someone who will dig around to prove Cody’s innocence. Nameless is reluctant, but his sense of duty pulls him into the case—

“It was the kind of distraught plea I’d heard in one form or another a dozen times before, and invariably my response had been the same: yes. Wise or foolish, right or wrong, always the same.”

Mineral Springs is a dirty, dusty, and cramped town. Its residents are small minded, petty, and mean. It is stark contrast to Nameless’ memory of Cheryl, and he has difficulty making her fit the town. She is harassed with telephone threats, and malicious property destruction—her shed is set on fire and a brick is thrown through a window of her home. Nameless isn’t welcomed with open arms either. The County Sheriff doesn’t quite warn him off, but comes close. The victims are less than cordial, and one of the townspeople takes a long distance and anonymous rifle shot at him.      

Strangersis a special novel. It is atmospheric, weighty, and entertaining. It is plot driven, but the procedural mystery runs a distant second to its raw emotional impact. The setting—desolate, stark, empty—fits the thematic structure of the story. The emptiness defines the nature of Nameless’ quest. A quest to discover the facts of the crimes Cody is accused of, and the truth of his shared past with Cheryl. A past that, when he discovers its truth, he would have preferred left alone—

“When I reached the highway and turned west, I didn’t look back.”

Strangersis one of the more powerful Nameless novels. Its emotional impact is on par with Mr Pronzini’s standalone work; particularly his masterful Blue Lonesome—which shares a similar setting, but very different leading woman—and The Crimes of Jordan Wise.

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