Blowback finds Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective struggling with his own mortality. The fourth novel in the series, this story opens with Nameless quitting cigarettes cold turkey and waiting to hear whether the legions on his lungs are cancerous or not. Looking to pass the time as quickly as possible, Nameless decides to help out an old Army buddy, Harry, who now owns several lakeside cabins in the mountains. All the male vacationers are lusting after Angela Jarrold, a married woman with a violently jealous husband. Harry knows trouble is around the corner and wants Nameless on-hand in case anything happens.
Nameless isn’t your typical Private Eye. Forget about Bogart and Hollywood. The graying detective has a paunch, no love life to speak of, and a loneliness and depression that the threat of cancer only exacerbates. He respects and cooperates with the law (at least in Blowback he does). He also doesn’t throw punches and glib, cynical remarks like there’s no tomorrow. Perhaps that is because he knows there might not be too many tomorrows left. Nameless is modest and intelligent where many PI’s are brash and macho.
A lifelong collector of pulps (just like his creator), Nameless looks to his childhood heroes and professional idols for inspiration and strength in these hard times, but instead finds more questions and self-doubt. He recognizes that he’s not a superhero like many of them were – he’s flesh and blood, he makes errors in his work, he grows older and fatter every day, and every day is one step closer to the grave. This self-awareness is one of the qualities that makes Nameless so likeable, but also modern and innovative. Pronzini respects the tradition from which his creation comes, and he shows his respect by allowing the Private Investigator to grow beyond the pages of the pulps.
Blowback also has an engaging plot with lots of original touches. The cabins are set amongst the preserved remains of California’s gold rush days of the previous century. One of the more interesting tangents in the plot involves Oriental Rug thieves, and Pronizini seamlessly integrates this history into the plot without making it seem forced. Pronzini’s clever resolution manages to be satisfying without losing any of the book’s disillusionment.
In the course of the novel, Pronzini makes a strong defense for the pulp Private Eye. As insightful as it is endearing, Blowback illuminates why we love the PI, but also why the PI is so necessary and everlasting. Pronzini said it better than I ever could, so I’ll end this review by quoting his wise words:
“Maybe I was not much of a detective, and maybe my life and my work had no real importance or significance in the scheme of things, and maybe I had patterned myself in the mold of fictional creations who were far greater in their world than I could ever be in mine – but none of that was a lie. A lie was something that hurt other people… If I was a pulp private eye, at least in spirit, then so be it. It was nothing to apologize for, nothing to feel ashamed about, because it was an honest thing to be, and a decent one.”