Triptych Image: "Eavesdropper"
Image Credit: Amalia Pica
2013 MARKS THE 45th ANNIVERSARY of one of crime fiction’s most enduring and hardest working PIs: Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective. Making his first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1968’s “It’s a Lousy World,” Nameless has appeared in 36 novels and more than 40 short stories. At the moment, his is the longest running PI series currently in print. By this point, he’s out performed and outlived the Continental Op, Spade, Marlowe, Archer, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, and most of his snoopy brethren. Nameless now stands with Holmes, Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and Spenser as one of the longest surviving literary private eyes of all time, and Pronzini deservedly towers tall alongside their titanic scribes. Pronzini was instrumental in modernizing the private eye genre, moving away from overly stylized syntax and hardboiled super heroes towards a more realistic and humanistic presentation in which we can recognize our own world and ourselves. Whether they know it or not (and hopefully they do), all contemporary PI writers and readers owe a great debt to Pronzini. Scholar, collector, editor, anthologist, and writer, he is, without a doubt, among the most significant minds in the mystery field of the past century.
Over the years, Pronzini has kept the name of his first-person narrator closely guarded, revealing it only once in the entire run of the series thus far (or so rumor has it, I’m still playing catch-up and haven’t come across it yet). Despite his anonymity, however, Nameless is among the most recognizably human of private eyes. He is an archetype fueled by heart rather than hype. He carries a gun not out of bloodlust (like Mike Hammer), but for protection from a world he knows is twisted, violent, and remorseless. He’s not hard drinking, fast loving, or quick with the quip. A San Francisco resident, devoted collector of pulp magazines and crime fiction scholar (like Pronzini, himself), Nameless is aware of his profession’s literary tradition, and he shows affection for his predecessors without ever seeming affected or self-conscious. He’s less extraordinary than he is ordinary; more like a neighbor we’re likely to sit at a counter with at the diner than someone who would save the world from certain doom. Nameless is a professional, he does his job, and he cares about it, but he’s mortal, and — more importantly — he mourns. “It’s a hell of a world we live in,” he says in Kinsmen, “A hell of a world.”
Cemetery Dance has contributed two new editions to Pronzini’s ever-lengthening bibliography, the novellas Kinsmen and Femme. Kinsmen, originally published in Criminal Intent magazine in 1993, finds Nameless investigating the disappearance of two college students last seen at a backwoods motel in upstate California. When he learns the couple was interracial, Nameless begins to wonder if there’s more behind the townsfolk’s tight lips than just innocent resentment of his prying eyes. Pronzini doesn’t indulge in the usual PI dramatics; like Ed Gorman, the great humanist amongst all PI writers, Pronzini is too sensitive to the pain of the victims, too sick over the hate of the criminals, and too hungover from bearing witness for too damn long. Says Nameless as he exits a movie theater in disgust at the film, “Entertainment? Hell no. There’s nothing entertaining about blood and pain and abused flesh. Not at the best of times and sure as hell not when your job is dealing with the real thing in the real world.” Pronzini has exchanged romance for reticence, excitement for empathy. “It made me feel cold, dirty, and sad and angry,” Nameless says of the case, and it’s a feeling that pervades the whole work. There’s nothing sanctimonious about this, as one might expect from Chandler or Spillane. Instead, Pronzini offers weariness and melancholy.
Femme, a new work from Pronzini, is an outstanding addition to his already impressive body of work, and proof that after nearly 80 adventures, the Nameless series is still going strong, still crisp, and never boring. Evoking the famous meeting of Private Detective Sam Spade and duplicitous dame Brigid O’Shaughnessy, who claims to be looking for her sibling, Nameless’s new case begins when Cory Beckett engages him to find her missing brother, Ken, wanted for stealing a diamond necklace from his employer’s wife. The case may be classical PI territory, but Pronzini’s approach is fresh. The initial investigation has amusing trappings — annoying yachtsmen, packing-peanut entrepreneurs, union leaders, and extramarital affairs — but, in characteristic Pronzini fashion, the emotional ruin at the heart of the case is devastating, and downright sorrowful. “Sickness and disgust, mingled with sadness and an impotent anger at the inhumanity of it,” is what Nameless feels. Private eye fiction isn’t all fun and games anymore.
As Kinsmen and Femme exemplify, the mechanics of Pronzini’s plotting are flawless and fluid. No hiccups, no stretches in logic, nothing beyond believability. He is reticent with his use of similes, but when he does use one it is uncontrived and spot-on. Ken Beckett is described not just as a moth “unable to resist the pull of a destructive flame,” but as one “fluttering back and forth, going nowhere.” The elegance of Pronzini’s language prevents it from seeming a cliché. His phrasing, so direct, is at times like poetry. “Alive, she’d been beautiful; dead, she was a torn and ugly travesty.” His use of the semicolon is a surprising and delicate touch, maintaining the subtle, lyrical lilt of the sentence.
Both novellas have the smooth efficiency and concision of a short story, but expanded to 180-ish easy-reading but hard-hitting pages. Unpretentious, Pronzini doesn’t resort to extreme violence, kooky concepts, or narrative or stylistic gimmicks. He doesn’t have to. There’s an ease to his prose, like João Gilberto’s guitar work. The skill is in making something so complicated sound so effortless, relaxation the true sign of mastery. He doesn’t pander or perform; where others stretch the private eye form to make room for themselves, Pronzini tightens it in calm confidence.
The real pleasure, though, is in the voice. His detective isn’t out to change the world, just out to do a job and do it well. Along the way, he’ll do the right thing if he can. Nameless isn’t an idealist. He’s a realist — and Pronzini is the same, not out to change the game, just to do his job, tell a good story, and entertain a few readers.
Did I say prolific? He has a third new release, The Bughouse Affair, written in collaboration with another modern legend of the PI genre (who also happens to be his wife), Marcia Muller. Just as influential as Nameless is Muller’s series detective, Sharon McCone. First seen in 1977’s now-classic Edwin of the Iron Shoes, McCone showed that modern-day mean streets are not just for boys, and cemented the female PI as a character to be taken seriously by writers and readers alike.
Since the passing of Kenneth Millar (a.k.a. Ross Macdonald) and Margaret Millar, Pronzini and Muller have been the reigning King and Queen of mystery fiction. Like the Millars, their marriage is a match made in heaven: two top-tier crime writers, each with their own distinctive style and independent reputation. Also like the Millars, Pronzini and Muller are the only other partners to receive the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. Unlike the Millars, however, Pronzini and Muller have also consummated their marriage on the page, through numerous collaborative novels and anthologies.
A delightfully screwball historical set in late-19th century San Francisco, The Bughouse Affair centers around the PI firm of ex–Secret Service agent John Quincannon and ex-Pinkerton Sabina Carpenter: partners in profession, not love, much to Quincannon’s dismay. With Quincannon repeatedly lousing up his attempts to catch a serial burglar, and Carpenter losing track of the female pickpocket she is trailing, business is not going so well. The cases seem increasingly to be interrelated, and a fellow claiming to be “Sherlock Holmes” enters their lives, and makes things worse. This pain in their necks claims to have both cases wrapped up but doesn’t, and it’s up to Quincannon and Carpenter to step up their games, save face, and solve the case.
The Bughouse Affair may be a more cordial cozy than the noir-laden Kinsmen and Femme, but it’s an equally fine piece of mystery craftsmanship. Like a tightly edited, multinarrative movie, The Bughouse Affair never drags, jumping between Quincannon and Carpenter’s adventures, creating a comical dialectic between their diametrically opposed personalities. Stubborn with unrequited love, Quincannon is the classic hardboiled dick who acts out of instinct rather than intellect. Carpenter is more sophisticated and cerebral in her practices but equally stubborn when it comes to her feelings, hence her refusal to give Quincannon the time of day. Originally appearing in Pronzini’s 1985 novel, Quincannon, it’s great to see the two detectives back on the page again. They’re an instantly likable duo, charming and amiable enough to win over even a noir-hardened, cozy-phobic reader like myself. I hope it won’t be too long before Pronzini and Muller pair them up on another case.
THE PROFESSION OF “PAPERBACK WRITER” is as romanticized, mythological, and distorted as any of the heroes and villains from those aged pulp pages. All too often they’re thought of as overpaid hacks, banging out novel after novel, yarn after yarn, raking in dough without concern for their words, without insight into their topics. Charles Kelly’s groundbreaking biography of Dan J. Marlowe (a portion of which was first published in these pages), a writer best known for his crime novels for Gold Medal — the first and most important of the paperback original publishers during its renaissance from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s — should act as a corrective to many of those rumors.
Marlowe’s life behind the typewriter was as dramatic and exciting as any of the criminal kinds that passed through his pages. Born in 1914, he studied accounting in school, mysteriously avoided service in World War II, spent most of his 20s floating from odd job to odd job, and squandered most of his money gambling. “He’d traveled the fringes of society and came naturally to the hardboiled style,” explains biographer Kelly. Marlowe married at age 31, but was a widower by age 42. Hitting the bottle hard, he drifted, and wound up in New York City where he decided to plunge headfirst into the booming paperback industry.
Just as ebooks today are challenging traditional modes of publishing and fighting off claims of illegitimacy and other pretentious prejudices, paperback originals were viewed with suspicion and disgust when they hit newsstands back when Gold Medal printed their first book in 1949. Circumventing the traditional hardcover-to-paperback reprint route, Gold Medal decided to buck the system and produce original paperback novels. The industry laughed. Newspapers rarely reviewed them. The public, however, loved them. Other publishers followed suit, and a new industry was born (replacing the recently dilapidated pulp field). And it was this new publishing avenue that gave Marlowe a shot in 1959 with his debut novel, Doorway to Death (Avon).
Marlowe’s life took an unexpected turn with his seventh novel in just three years, The Name of the Game Is Death (Gold Medal, 1962). The most popular and critically acclaimed novel of his career up to that point, it won the author many new admirers, including an aspiring young novelist living in Philadelphia. Phone calls and letters were exchanged, nothing out of the ordinary. And then Marlowe, renting a room in a widow’s house in small town Harbor Beach, Michigan, received a visit from the FBI. That aspiring novelist, it turned out, was one of America’s Most Wanted: real life bank robber Al Nussbaum.
Nussbaum was eventually caught and served jail time, but he and Marlowe continued to correspond, with Marlowe helping Nussbaum hone his prose, and eventually selling his stories to various magazines. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship: Marlowe shepherding Nussbaum’s career, Nussbaum feeding Marlowe information from his own criminal life.
Nussbaum would not be the dramatic peak to Marlowe’s career. What followed was a hard two-and-a-half decade fall from grace before winding up dead, forgotten, and out-of-print. Along the way there were creative rivalries with uncredited researchers, battles with editors, amnesia, more run-ins with the feds, and the crash of the paperback industry. Changing trends in publishing killed the careers of the writers who gave birth to that industry just a couple decades earlier. Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Day Keene, Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, and many others — including Dan J. Marlowe — suddenly found they could barely make a sale. It was a tragic end to too many careers, an ironically bleak and unjust finale for writers who specialized in noir tales of people, like themselves, whose world crumbled beneath their feet, and who couldn’t stop from falling deeper and deeper into the abyss.
Along with Frank Gruber’s memoir, The Pulp Jungle, and Paul S. Powers’ Pulp Writer: Twenty Years in the American Grub Street, Kelly’s Gunshots In Another Room is one of the few nonfiction books that offer a privileged, intimate look into the professional lives of midcentury popular fiction writers. The toil behind the craft, the anxiety of the industry, and the personal stories of fingers that kept the typewriter clanging long into the night. For anyone interested in the history of crime fiction, or the evolution and devolution of the paperback original industry, Gunshots In Another Room is an indispensible volume.
STARK HOUSE PRESS HAS MADE ITS REPUTATION championing the underdogs of crime fiction (Day Keene, Harry Whittington, Peter Rabe). From long unavailable work to never-before-printed manuscripts, their taste has been unimpeachable, a near-perfect record of hits. Still, this Bruce Elliott and Elliott Chaze edition, stands above all the rest. It’s a game-changing reprint for the crime fiction field, reintroducing one author who has barely registered on the radar up until this point (Bruce Elliott) and another whose fabled masterpiece routinely fetched several hundred dollars, preventing most readers from ever reading it (Elliott Chaze). Now, readers have access to these books for practically the first time since they originally appeared in the early 1950s. What Stark House has uncovered is truly extraordinary, two should-be classics that will shock and surprise even the most devoted noir aficionado.
Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel was originally published by Gold Medal in 1953. Bill Crider and Ed Gorman have long been touting this as one of Gold Medal’s finest crime novels. Now that I’ve read it, I’ll nod my head in agreement: they weren’t kidding. Among the most unorthodox and peculiar heist novels, its protagonists are an oil rigger fresh off a 16-week stint in the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana and a volatile, bloodthirsty call girl. Beginning with their self-loathing meeting in a cheap motel room to their road trip across the Southwest and culminating in a camping expedition in the Colorado mountains, Black Wings Has My Angel seems less like a heist novel than a travelogue of American scenery and squalor. But that’s precisely its magnetic appeal: Black Wings Has My Angel is a tantalizing novel that reveals its dark secrets slowly, never letting us in on the grand plan until we’re too far along to back out.
Black Wings Has My Angel shows that Elliott Chaze was amongst the most formally experimental and narratively audacious authors in the Gold Medal lineup. As the narrator explains:
I’m telling this the way I remember it, and I explained to you before that some of the things that come back to me are little things that stick out of the story like sore thumbs and don’t serve any useful purpose. I’m trying to keep it true to life and real life is not a series of nice interlocking ripples graded for size and fitting into a pattern that can be called off like your ABC’s. It’s a bunch of foolish tiny things that don’t add one way or the other, except that they happened and passed time.
Whether or not they serve any narrative purpose, the details themselves are unforgettable, from a little girl’s parking lot parable about how “Jesus went to God and said he wanted to have something to eat, for His own glory,” to the narrator’s methodical description of being a “power-shear operator, working a wide hydraulic blade that chopped sheet metal the way you cut cheese,” the details of which are so rigorously rendered it reminds one of Melville’s technical digressions in Moby-Dick. Is it necessary to know the most minute details of whaling to tell Ishmael’s story? Probably not, but the story is in the journey, not the destination. The heist, like the battle with the white whale, might be the centerpiece, but it is by no means the main attraction. The chief appeal is Chaze’s unflappable narrative command: the more tense and turbulent the protagonists’ crimewave becomes, the cooler and more controlled Chaze’s prose becomes. It’s an astonishing book, one that deserves to remain permanently in print and to secure a high spot in the crime fiction canon.
And the lesser-known title is even better. Bruce Elliott’s One Is a Lonely Number was published in 1952 by Lion Books (a lesser-known paperback publisher of such classics as David Goodis’ Black Friday, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, and Day Keene’s My Flesh Is Sweet). The main character is Larry Camonille, an escaped convict with only one partial lung left, a bad cough that threatens to spew out what’s left, and five dollars in his pocket. He spends the dough on a prostitute, even though a doctor warned him that any exertion — smoking, drinking, sex, whatever — might be enough to kill him. So begins Camonille’s self-destructive binge on his way to Mexico, where he dreams of breathing the warm, dry air — if he can survive long enough to get there. Taking a job in a kitchen to make some money, Camonille shacks up with an epileptic juvenile girl dating one of his co-workers, then embarks on a foolhardy crime spree that even someone with two good lungs could hardly get away with.
This is our hero. Someone so despicable that even Jim Thompson’s characters seem civilized. Someone so sleazy and depraved he makes Day Keene’s protagonists seem wholesome. Comb any of the noir films or crime novels from that era and you won’t find anyone so unapologetically degenerate as Larry Camonille. This might very well be the bleakest noir of them all. Page two of the book, and he describes himself as, “Thirty-two years old and dead. A corpse looking for a place to lie down and pull up the earth around it.” This is about as uplifting and likable as Larry gets.
Psychologically convincing, Camonille exemplifies that noir existentialism that seeks to bring on doom and damnation faster, harder, and more violently. Ed Gorman (one of the most perceptive and influential commentators on crime fiction, in addition to being a first-rate novelist himself) nails the challenge and appeal of One Is a Lonely Number in his introduction:
In [Cornell] Woolrich and [David] Goodis you generally sympathize with their lead characters but with Camonille, especially in the early chapters before he reaches you, you sit back and observe a crazed animal trying to elude capture. Only gradually does Elliott begin to humanize him and once again I give Elliott points for taking a big risk. He lets his man scare you a few times before you begin to understand him.
From inner city drug dens to small-town juvenile delinquent sex clubhouses, Elliott — like Orrie Hitt — reveals the latent capacity for degeneracy of the American landscape. Nothing is sacred, no place is safe and, most importantly, nobody is innocent. Elliott’s book, like Hitt’s I’ll Call Every Monday, offers an alternative history of 1950s American ideals. It’s a prime example of the challenges that brutal noir fiction represented to pervading moral standards. If there’s anything heroic about Larry Camonille, it's that he is unapologetic. Elliott doesn’t excuse his actions with Freudian pardons or sentimental longings. Camonille is wholly self-aware — of course he’s also self-loathing, and his actions are like a long, protracted suicide — but right up until the last page, a symphonic rhapsody of oblivion, Camonille knows what he’s doing, and he never apologizes for it.
Taken together, One Is a Lonely Number and Black Wings Has My Angel provide a cross-country noir road trip. If you want to go to the most desolate, grimmest corners of America, you couldn’t ask for better tour guides than Bruce Elliott and Elliott Chaze.