"What's in a name, after all?"- Bill Pronzini
Ever since the inception of this blog, it has chronicled a journey of discovery through the realm of the post-GAD era detective story and during these travels I grew particular fond of the private eye novels penned by Bill Pronzini. It was on this very spot that I critiqued my first, full-length Nameless novel, Hoodwink (1981), but was already formally introduced to both author and character through a number of short stories scattered over numerous anthologies. The first one I read, "The Pulp Connection," was collected in The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) and whetted my appetite for more, but it wasn't until earlier this year that I began picking up his books – and the only regret I have is that I didn't do it sooner. So reading the short stories collected in Casefile (1983) felt as a return to those unenlightened years.
Chronologically, this collection opens with a smattering of archetypical, noirish private eye stories that were Pronzini's early literary endeavors into the genre, in which Nameless is confronted with the seamier side of life. But after "Private Eye Blues" the stories become gradually more complex as the unnamed gumshoe is confronted with locked rooms, semi-impossible disappearances and even a dying message.
It's a Lousy World
The bereaved widow of an ex-convict, who strayed from the crooked path to walk the straight and narrow, engages the services of Nameless to find out what really happened the night her husband was shot by two patrolling policeman – after apparently holding up a liquor store. Nameless exonerates the dead man by understanding the significance of a paper-wrapped bottle of hard liquor the ex-con was carrying when he was gunned down, and proves that this world sometimes really is just a lousy place.
Death of a Nobody
A street bum relates the story of how one of his chums witnessed a hit-and-run accident and extorted money from the driver he nicknamed Robin Hood, but this person turned Bad King John on him – and savagely beats him to death in a back alley. Nameless takes on the case pro bono. This is neither a puzzle yarn nor a hardboiled narrative, but a tale that is best described as a humanist crime story.
One of Those Cases
This is "an old story, a sordid one, a sad one," in which Nameless is engaged by a woman who suspects her husband of having a fling with another woman, but a surveillance of her husbands late night excursions into the unknown turns up evidence of a far more serious offense than not observing his wedding vowels. Essentially, this is a page from the life of a private investigator that ended on a slightly more exciting note than these types of routine checks usually do.
An elderly, indisposed millionaire hires Nameless to take the first plane to the sultry island of Majorca, a slice of the Spanish Mediterranean, where he's to deliver a suitcase stuffed with dough to his son – who cabled a demand for ready cash. It's a rather simplistic story, but I still quite liked the twist and it's the first entry in this collection that broke with the dark, moody atmosphere of the previous tales.
Private Eye Blues
Here we have Bill Pronzini's "The Final Problem," in which he prematurely wrote-off his fictional brainchild to devout his career to writing big commercial novels, but came back on that premature decision in Blowback (1977) – and drastically altered the direction and tone of the series.
The Pulp Connection
Lt. Eberhardt calls his friend, Nameless, to the home of Thomas Murray, who garnered fame as the King of the Popular Culture Collectors, to assist him with deciphering a cryptic message left behind by the cultural accumulator after someone poked him with a steel spike – and left the dying man behind the locked door and fastened windows of his pulp room. The dying message is made up of three pulp magazines, Clue, Keyhole Mystery Magazine and Private Detective, but even Nameless, an enthusiastic collector himself, has a hard time making sense out of it. Unfortunately, the solution he comes up with depends too much on unsubstantiated guesswork rather than logical deductions and the locked room trick, clever though it is, is very risky and not a method I would gamble my freedom on. Nevertheless, it's still a very diverting story that shows a writer who has decided to have some fun with the conventions of the genre without apologizing for it.
Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?
Nameless is laboring under the naïve assumption that he's earning an easy fee, when he agrees to fill-in as a temporary night watchman for an importing company. The facility he has to guard already resembles an impenetrable fortress, where he can kick back with a pulp magazine most of the time, but it takes more than locks and shuttered windows to stop the detective curse – and before long he has to find an explanation as to how a body could be introduced into a building that is the equal to a sealed box. The solution to the reversed locked room problem is as simple as it's clever as well as the identity and motive of the murderer. Great title, by the way!
Dead Man's Slough
A minor tale, in which Nameless encounters a ghostly appearance of a red headed man clutching his head on the water and disappears under semi-impossible conditions – and the appearance of the man, corresponds with that of the ghost of a murdered miner. But Nameless doesn't believe in ghosts and searches the islet for answers. It's not really a spectacular story, but it pleasantly reminded me of Scooby-Doo.
The last two entries in this collection have a combined page count of one hundred and nine pages and can almost be considered novellas. In this case, an attorney wants Nameless to track down an anonymous caller who has been harassing his daughter with lewd phone calls, but soon they transition from vulgar into the threatening – and our unnamed opt stumbles over yet another body. This is fairly clued story, but the problem failed to grab my full, undivided attention and the culprit is too easily identified. Not one of my favorite Pronzini stories, I'm afraid.
This story, on the other hand, has been a personal favorite of mine ever since reading it in a mini-anthology, Locked Room Puzzles (1986), and it's one of the standout stories of this collection – alongside with "Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?". Nameless takes on an undercover assignment at a bookstore where a wraithlike thief has been smuggling valuable maps past a perfect operating security system. The solution is uncomplicated, workable and absolutely brilliant.
Casefile is an excellent collection by any standards, but it will depend on where you stand in the genre on which half of the book you'll enjoy more. For me, it was the second, more puzzle-orientated part of the book, but I can understand if devotes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett find more satisfaction in the first fistful of stories. In any case, it's a perfect introduction to Pronzini's work and recommended to start of with if you aren't familiar with his work yet.
All the books I have reviewed in this series: