Friday, July 10, 2015

Gravetapping: NIGHTCRAWLERS by Bill Pronzini

By Ben Boulden

Purchase a copy on Amazon.
The Nameless Detective series has been active since 1971 and it is still strong—in sales and quality alike. The protagonist—Nameless, who isn’t as nameless as he once was—has aged and matured in almost real time. He was young and full of fight throughout his appearances in the 1970s and 80s, but with age he has mellowed with creaky bones, aching muscles, a wife and an adopted daughter.

The thirty-second title, published by Forge in 2005, is Nightcrawlers and while it, and all of the recent titles, is different from the early Nameless stories it is still pretty damn terrific. In many ways the latest releases are better—there is more nuance, the execution is tighter and Nameless—or Bill—has developed into something more than he was. He is a living, breathing, believable character that is not only sympathetic to the reader, but downright likable.

Nightcrawlers is a personal journey for Nameless. There are three storylines that run parallel, and not one of them ever crosses another—there are no hokey connections or ridiculous coincidences, but rather there are three stories (mysteries) compressed with superb execution and sharp prose into one very enjoyable novel.

Nameless’ detective office is a three-person operation now. Nameless has semi-retired, Tamara Corbin is a full partner and Jake Runyon is the main operative. The location of the office has also moved—it is now just south of Market instead of the old O’Farrell Street location.
Business is slow; Tamara is taking care of what seems to be a small skip-trace on a deadbeat dad, Jake is pursuing a non-paying case in an attempt to stop a string of brutal beatings in the Castro and Nameless is doing a personal favor for a dying pulp writer—Russell Dancer who appeared in at least three earlier Nameless novels (UndercurrentHoodwink and Bones), and is based on the pulp writer J. M. (Jay) Flynn.

The skip-trace turns out to be more than it first appeared and not because of the case itself, but rather something Tamara stumbles across as she is working it. Unfortunately Tamara never gets the opportunity to tell either Nameless or Runyon her suspicions before she disappears, which acts as the catalyst for the climax of the novel.

Nightcrawlers is damn entertaining. It is written in both first and third person—Nameless acts as his own narrator and the chapters in the perspective of Tamara and Jake are in third person. It works very well. It broadens the scope of the story without diminishing its personality. The perspective changes from chapter to chapter are easily detected (beyond the note at the top of each chapter) by subtle shifts in style and vocabulary. Tamara has the easy flow of the street, Jake is hardboiled, and Nameless is just Nameless.

Tamara: “Now that she was here, out on a field job, she began to feel a little stoked.”

Jake: “The man himself was in his late thirties, short, dark, and cynical. The cynicism showed in his eyes, the set of his mouth, his voice.”

Nameless: “Russ Dancer, dying. Cirrhosis and emphysema. Refused to quit drinking or smoking, refused hospitalization or treatment beyond painkillers and an oxygen bottle that he carried around with him.”

The prose has the deceptive feel and flow of simplicity, but, in its stark hardboiled style, it is vividly saturated with the essence of the characters and their city, San Francisco. The setting is developed well and described in a fashion that it makes the reader feel like she is in San Francisco moving between Market and Castro and all points between. The story builds upon itself with each page and chapter bringing with it a dry and edgy suspense. 

Nightcrawlers is the real thing and a terrific entry in the series. Find a copy, read it, and pass it on because more people should be exposed to both Bill Pronzini and his other “Bill,” known as Nameless.

This review originally went live May 7, 2012. It was the first review I wrote for Gravetappingafter a long hiatus, and I decided it was worth running again. Nightcrawlers was the first “modern” Nameless novel I read, and since then I have been reading each title as it is released. I have even reviewed a couple: Strangers, and Nemesis

No comments: