The only time I ever visited San Francisco was many years ago now. Maybe ten years, but not more than fifteen. I could probably narrow that down further, but it would require getting out of my office chair. That’s not going to happen right now.
I recall being in a bookstore somewhere in city. It’s what I tend to do when I visit new places. It wasn’t a locally owned shop, as I recall. It was a chain store, possibly a Borders (remember them?). And, I was very angry.
You don’t know me, but I don’t often get angry. While it’s true that I was born a ginger—and I still have red hair valiantly holding off the gray—I’ve never had the quick temper that redheads are rumored to have. Instead, I tend to bottle up my emotions until I can no longer contain them, and when I lose my cool, I lose it big. Not really a healthy way to react, I realize. I’m not violent or anything like that. It’s just that when I get angry it sometimes takes me a while to get over it.
Slow fuse. Big explosion.
On this particular sunny day in San Francisco (zero days of fog until the day we flew out), I was angry because I am a fan of the author Bill Pronzini. The author sets a lot of his fiction in San Francisco, and I believe he still lives in the area with his wife of 28 years, fellow crime novelist Marcia Muller. The Nameless Detective novels are set primarily in the Bay Area, and, as of 2017, there are 42 novels, 2 novellas, and 2 short story collections in this series. Even fifteen years ago, there were already over 30 novels.
And this bookstore didn’t have a single Bill Pronzini book anywhere on its shelves.
Which is why I was angry. To me, that’s like a Detroit bookstore without any Elmore Leonard or Loren D. Estleman books. Or a Fort Lauderdale bookstore without any John D. McDonalds. Or—
I could go on.
Sharon didn’t understand why this was enough to make me angry. I don’t fully understand it myself. Part of the reason, I think, was that this felt like an insult to the author. I could have forgiven them for not having copies of all of Pronzini’s books. He’s published more than a hundred. But, to not have even one! Even now it makes me a little angry, and Borders is no longer even in business.
The other reason was I needed some reading material and thought it would be cool to purchase a Pronzini book in San Francisco. I was denied that opportunity.
I’ve been reading Pronzini’s stuff since the late 1970s. I didn’t begin with the Nameless series. I believe my first was one of the novels co-written with Barry N. Malzberg. I’ve also read several of his standalone novels. But, when I discovered the Nameless Detective series in the stacks of the public library in Columbia, South Carolina, it was like finding a rich vein of ore to mine. The library had several of the early entries in the series, and I read all of them.
Hoodwink was #7 in the series, published in 1981. When I picked it up this time, I wasn’t sure if I had read it or not. Enough time has passed that it really didn’t matter to me. Reading a book I read decades ago is a lot like watching an old favorite movie. However, once I started reading, I became convinced that I had never read this one, although I think some of the events of the story were referenced in a later novel I did read.
The Nameless Detective is the protagonist of the series. He is very much in the classic mold of American private eye mystery fiction, except for a couple of tweaks to the character that make him seem more realistic to me. Nameless seldom carries a gun, is overweight (at least in the early goings), drinks beer and collects old pulp magazines, especially the ones with private eye stories in them.
Not assigning the character a name was a neat gimmick. However, the character is no longer truly “nameless.” He is called “Bill” by another character in at least one novel, perhaps Double, written with his then-future wife Marcia Muller and co-starring Muller’s own famous detective Sharon McCone (who was around prior to Kinsey Millhone—just sayin’). Pronzini himself has said that he sees himself when he imagines the detective, so it’s not too much of a stretch to say the detective’s name is Bill Pronzini. At the very least, he’s a version of the author, who used to be overweight, drank beer and collected pulps.
Nameless’ backstory is a familiar one. He served in military intelligence in the Vietnam War, then worked as a police officer for a bit before becoming a private investigator. This may even be a detective fiction trope, with only the war changing.
In Hoodwink, Nameless finds himself having to solve not one, but two locked room murder mysteries, after attending the first annual Western Pulp Convention in San Francisco. Nameless was invited by former pulp writer, and current raging alcoholic, Russell Dancer. Someone is trying to blackmail Dancer—and several other pulp writers, as it turns out—for the purported plagiarism of a story titled, you guessed it, “Hoodwink.” The stolen story was turned into what became a successful movie.
The bulk of this novel is set in the milieu of the pulp convention. Even though he’s on the job, Nameless is enjoying himself like a kid in a candy store. He even meets a woman in this novel. The woman is Kerry Wade, whom he would marry about fourteen years later, and she’s the daughter of two famous pulp writers, members of a group known as “The Pulpeteers,” all of whom are being blackmailed.
Then there’s the aforementioned locked room murder in the hotel, and it looks like Russell Dancer, the man who hired Nameless, is the man who pulled the trigger. Of course, Nameless doesn’t believe he’s guilty, so he begins to dig, beat the bushes and shake the trees. As way leads to way, there’s a second locked room murder made to look like an accident. Then, Nameless ends up in an Arizona ghost town, where there is someone trying to kill him. Finally, things are resolved and the guilty party is revealed.
This was the abridged synopsis. A lot of other stuff happens in-between. Secrets are revealed, old animosities are stirred up, Nameless’s best friend is having marital problems, and, of course, Nameless is falling in love.
I enjoyed this book. It has a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it. Probably because of the locked room murders, a tip of the hat to John Dickson Carr, perhaps. While I learned a little bit about pulp magazines while reading this, Pronzini didn’t beat me over the head with his prodigious knowledge on the subject. His love for the pulps certainly came through, however.
While reading, the novel reminded me of another book from long ago. This was Murder at the ABA, by Isaac Asimov. This book was a departure for the good doctor, a murder mystery set in the milieu of an American Booksellers Association convention. The Asimov book was published in 1976, just five years before this one.
I’m not suggesting any sort of plagiarism here, although that would be ironic considering the Hoodwink story. The stories told in each novel are unique. It’s just the settings that struck me as similar.
Firewater’s Blackmail-Extortion-and-Two-Sides-of-Murder Report Card: B+
There are better novels in the Nameless Detective series, I’ll admit. But, this one was fun and I would recommend it, without hesitation, to any fans of private detective fiction.