"Detective work, gentleman. That is all I can say."- John Quincannon
Bill Pronzini has garnered most of his laurels with an ongoing series of novels and short stories, in which he depicts the personal and professional life of a San Francisco based detective and these narratives ought to be viewed as a biography in progress. The Nameless Detective, whose full name has become a public secret at this point, is one of the most well-rounded characters in the genre who single-handedly changed the way I perceived private eye stories – and gave me a whole new perspective on the genre. It therefore pains me to no end that I have to relegate him down the list of favorite characters in favor of Pronzini's secondary detectives, John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter, but at heart I will always remain a classicist and these two plucked at the strings of that instrument.
John Quincannon used to be in the employ of the United States Secret Service as a secret agent, which seems an unlikely occupation for a man who cultivates a conspicuous, gray-flecked freebooter's beard, but gave up that government job to go into business with Sabina Carpenter – a widow of a Pinkerton detective. Quincannon would love to expend their joint partnership into a romantic commitment, but Sabina firmly turns down his advances and continues to work with him on a purely professional basis.
Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services (1998) collects nine stories, penned between 1988 and 1998, in which the titular detective duo are confronted with counterfeiters, grifters, body snatchers and even the occasional locked room murder during the waning years of the 19th century and are topped with a western flavor – making them borderline hybrid stories.
No Room at the Inn
Twas the night before Christmas, when a lone San Francisco gumshoe, chilled to the marrow with a frost-coated beard, braves a snowstorm as he cuts a track through a frozen mountain landscape – in hot pursuit of a quarry with a nice Christmas bonus on his head. The one-man manhunt reaches an impasse at the front door of an inn and its occupants seem to have vanished like Ebenezer Scrooge's ill-tempered demeanor after an intervention from three spirits. Quincannon subsequent search of the place turns up a surprise or two and the plot patterns that emerge from his findings are quite pleasing. This is as good as a Christmas story as Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle."
Quincannon and Carpenter are engaged to not only figure out who has been toying around with the idea of treating Noah Rideout to an early wake and funeral, but also, if possible, to upset this persons plans. It's not a bad or uneventful story, but I had to thumb back to recall its premise and solution. Not a very memorable story, I'm afraid.
The Cloud Cracker
The womanizing Leonide Zacks is a self-professed "Cloud Cracker," whose portable chemical shack and potion-filled rockets can break any dry spell and offers this service to drought-stricken towns in exchange for some of their liquid assets, but the only torrents he creates are those of voices cursing his name after a sunstroke town finds out that they've been conned. Quincannon can earn a paycheck if he exposes and captures the fraudulent rainmaker, but before he's able to complete his assignment the conman has the bad manners to allow himself to get shot inside his locked shack – and the only other person in there profusely professes his innocence. This is a very diverting tale with an original take on the problem of the locked room, but the guilty party walked a very fine tight-rope during the execution of this seeming impossible crime and must have paid-off Murphy's Law not to show up for work that day.
Quincannon and Carpenter are on a joint undercover assignment at McFinn's Palace Saloon and Gaming Parlor, where they attempt to get a grip on the sleight-of-hand methods of a female cardsharp named Lady One-Eye. But a jealousy-driven undercurrent turns this straightforward affair into a complicated murder case when the husband of the one-eyed card shark, Jack O'Diamonds, is shot in the middle of the crowded saloon – without anyone seeing who dispatched the fatal bullet. The solution is a variation on an old ploy, but one that blends perfectly with the time and setting of the story. Overall, this is just a fun detective story populated with colorful and memorable characters. Definitely one of the standouts of this collection!
Long Nick Darrow is a gifted, but rancorous, counterfeiter who was thrown in the clink thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Quincannon – which earned the bearded operative a top-spot on Darrow's list of unfinished business to take care of once he's out. This is more a western than a mystery, really, in which the problem is resolved with cracking knuckles and blazing guns rather than relaying on wit and intellect. Great fun, though!
The Desert Limited
The detective duo of Carpenter and Quincannon board The Desert Limited, in pursuit of an outlaw with a bounty on his head, but as the train races through a sun-blasted wasteland the fugitive manages to shake off his pursues – and seems to have evaporated from a speeding train. The premise of the story and the semi-improbable disappearance are interesting, but the solution is silly and a letdown. However, I have to note here that this story would probably work a lot better if it were translated to a visual medium. A Carpenter and Quincannon television series?
The Horseshoe Nail
Quincannon once again accepts an undercover job, this time at a sawmill, to ensnarl a sneak thief and retrieve the loot, which he assumes will earn him an easy paycheck, but then the larcenist turns up dead in his cabin – with the only door securely barred from the inside. The answer to this locked room problem is delightfully simple, but clasping the responsible party in irons will proof to be close shave for the 19th century gumshoe. A good story, plain and simple.
Arguably the best story in this collection, in which Quincannon and Carpenter, masquerading as the fictitious Mr. and Mrs. John Quinn, set-out to expose professor Vargas, head of the Unified College of the Attuned Impulses, as a fraudulent medium – who made an art out of financially draining the grieving. The professor puts on a fantastic spook show in his locked and darkened séance room, where tables move on their own accord and luminous faces from the spirit world take a peek at our plain of existence, but then the Grim Reaper puts in an appearance – and Vargas is stabbed while everyone was holding hands and the locked door prevented any outsider from coming in!
I have a sneaking suspicion that this tale was penned as a tribute to John Dickson Carr. The story has an atmospheric setting and a premise that revolves around apparently supernatural occurrences and an impossible stabbing, but there were also a few laugh-out-loud moments – as Carpenter and Quincannon were channeling the spirit of Sir Henry Merrivale when it was their turn to ask the spirits questions! Full marks for this story!
This is more a thriller than a proper detective story, in which a war between different factions is brooding in China Town after the body of a Tong Leader is snatched and a lawyer is fatally wounded in the street by a bullet. The only clue are the last words of the lawyer, "blue shadow," which constitutes as a dying message, but the main focus for Quincannon is on preventing a a small-scale civil war in the streets and simply surviving this ordeal. Not a bad story at all, but this time the setting was more interesting than the actual plot.
Overall, a strong compendium of period stories, which either had cleverly constructed plots or told an exciting story combined with evocative settings and colorful characters, that left me craving for more – and I wonder if over the past thirteen years enough new stories have appeared to justify a second collection. These stories are too good to leave them uncollected!