SMALL FELONIES is Bill Pronzini’s second straight book that might accurately be summarized as eccentric or, at the very least, surprising. His previous book, SHACKLES (1988), was an addition to what Pronzini is best known for, his “Nameless Detective” series. The book departed from its predecessors, however, by presenting a psychological study of “Nameless” as he struggled first to escape a particularly dastardly murder attempt, then to exact justice without violating his personal code of ethics. Missing were the desperate client and unraveling of a complex new case. Though well received by some critics, SHACKLES might well have been written by a man who, after publishing dozens of books, had finally run out of book-length plots.
Though it is a very different sort of work, SMALL FELONIES supports the same conclusion. In it, Pronzini has collected fifty short-shorts ranging from horror to humor with about another half-dozen categories in between. Most of these stories have been previously published, though eight originals have been thrown in, perhaps to bring the collection up to a nice round number. (Supporting this speculation is the fact that story number fifty consists of a single fifteen-word sentence.) In short, Pronzini has produced another book without prevailing upon himself to formulate a plot.
The result is nevertheless well worthwhile if taken in small doses. In his preface, Pronzini describes the short-short story as a difficult and, unfortunately, disappearing art form. He also confesses to his enjoyment of the instant gratification that comes from writing a short-short as compared with the months of work it takes to complete a novel. This instant gratification can be shared by those who read one or two of these stories at a sitting. Even Pronzini’s clunkers build enough suspense to hold mystery readers, and there are several stories that are masterful (for example, “Sweet Fever”). Be forewarned, however, that exceeding the recommended dosage can, indeed, be deadly.