Bill Pronzini Essay - Critical Essays


Although Bill Pronzini has produced stories and novels at a truly enviable pace, both he and his critics have accorded the Nameless series a special status. First, it is clear that Pronzini identifies strongly with the Nameless detective. Indeed, this is one reason his hero has remained without a name. Second, the Nameless series has been recognized as marking the literary high point of Pronzini’s career. It is this body of work for which Pronzini will probably be remembered, for the Nameless series has staying power derived both from its faithfulness to the well-hallowed tradition of the hard-boiled detective story and from its innovations and freshness within that tradition.

The hard-boiled detective story goes back to the 1920’s, when Hammett, taking advantage of the flourishing trade in pulp magazines and the stylistic trends of the times, almost single-handedly established a new subgenre of popular fiction. Drawing on his experience as a Pinkerton’s detective, Hammett brought a new realism and depth to crime fiction while holding to the constraints of the pulp market. These constraints dictated plenty of action and consummate directness of expression. The result was a hybrid literary form with elements of both high and low art—something roughly akin, both conceptually and chronologically, to the Marx brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935). The hard-boiled genre expanded quickly and profusely. As Pronzini and others have remarked, numerous authors, some well known, others relatively obscure, though often talented, went on to produce notable works within it. In addition, the genre was a natural for films and later for television. The action-oriented, economic prose and crisp dialogue of hard-boiled stories translated readily to both the large and the small screen, resulting in classic films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and popular television programs such as Peter Gunn (1958-1961), The Rockford Files (1974-1980), and Spenser: For Hire (1985-1988). In short, the hard-boiled detective became a significant mythic figure in American culture, one that, for all its very considerable international appeal, remains as distinctly American as jazz.

Why has the hard-boiled detective had so broad and lasting an appeal? This type of detective has been likened to a modern-day knight, defending the weak, seeking truth, and striving for justice in ways that legal authorities cannot or will not duplicate. Put another way, the hard-boiled detective is an independent agent who acts as he does because it is right, not for material gain or out of blind allegiance to a cause, and who is willing to face stiff opposition in the name of principle. The hard-boiled detective is a person of action, a doer, living up to the dictates of a demanding personal code; therefore, this type of detective must not only pass up wealth and other modern measures of “success” but also risk grave personal danger. It is this precarious existence that dictates that the detective be a loner; privation and danger are the crosses to bear and are not readily transferable to loved ones and other intimates.

The Nameless Detective

Pronzini’s Nameless series consciously carries on this tradition both stylistically and substantively. Using the genre’s classic, first-person narrative, lean prose, and crisp dialogue, Pronzini portrays Nameless as being nearly everything the detective as modern-day knight is supposed to be. Nameless helps the weak, at times working without pay to do so. For example, in the early stories “It’s a Lousy World” and “Death of a Nobody,” Nameless takes up the causes of a former convict and a derelict, both of whom have been killed. There are no wealthy relatives footing the bill, thus no hope for a paycheck. Yet Nameless follows through, simply because he cares about the sanctity of every human life, not merely those for whom a fee can be collected. He also cares about the quality of each life, a characteristic that leads his friend Eb to call him a social worker. Beyond this universal compassion lies a hunger for truth in all of its complexity (as opposed to mere appearances) and for thoroughgoing justice (rather than the rough equivalent provided by law). To pursue these goals, Nameless must devote himself single-mindedly to his investigations, wading through a sea of lies, warding off threats, and ignoring weariness to the point of exhaustion. Nameless does all this and more in the name of a higher code, a modern form of chivalry aimed at making the world a better place in which to live.

Nevertheless, the Nameless series does more than simply pay homage to the hard-boiled genre; it adds a new twist or two to the tradition. Drawing on the model of Thomas B. Dewey’s detective, “Mac,”...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)