Friday, 12 September 2008


by Bill Pronzini
Canongate 2001, £9.99

(note: Bill Pronzini was honoured with the MWA 2008 Grand Master Award, but his publication in Britain remains woefully lacking. I wrote this piece in 2001 for the Spectator, but despite Canongate packaging the book to attract 'serious' attention, the review appears here for the first time, perhaps because one does not like foreigners criticising one's publishing institutions does not one?)

Bill Pronzini has written more than 50 novels, and another dozen or so collections of non-fiction or short stories, but this is his first book published in Britain. Most of his output has been crime fiction or westerns, and he could be considered one of the last of the old-fashioned pulp writers.
Given that, it’s not surprising that in America, Pronzini is best known for his “Nameless Detective” series of novels, whose protagonist, a pulp magazine-collecting private eye, owes much to Dashiell Hammett’s similarly nameless ‘Continental Op’ and like him, is based in San Francisco. The ‘Nameless’ novels deserve reprinting in Britain, but BLUE LONESOME is a far better starting point, a multi-faceted work which highlights Pronzini’s strongest points as a crime writer.

The novel moves through three stages. The first is a hommage to the classic 1950s pulp novel of urban alienation, and is bleak enough to live up to Canongate’s thoughtful use of Edward Hopper’s “Sunlight In A Cafeteria” on the cover. Jim Messenger is a San Francisco accountant stuck in a dead-end job and living a dead-end life, who becomes fascinated with a woman he spies eating at his local cafeteria, a woman who appears to be even lonelier than he is. When the woman is found dead, having slit her wrists in the bathtub, Messenger decides to find out who she was, and what drove her to such a desperate act.

Following a clue to her real identity, he winds up in the Nevada desert, and the second stage of the story begins, as the stranger in town starts turning over rocks the locals would rather leave unturned. Pronzini’s working familiar territory, reminiscent of movies like “Bad Day At Black Rock”, but as Messenger’s own resources are tested, the surface friendliness of the small town reveals its own type of loneliness, more dangerous than the cold city from which Messenger fled. He also realises individuals make their own isolation, and it requires a certain courage to break out from it.

The book’s final stage is classic whodunit. Pronzini may have a hard-boiled facade, but underneath he loves literary puzzles, in which clues are left for the reader, crimes are solved by deduction, and the world is put right. Messenger lives up to his name, as far as Beluah, Nevada is concerned, and the suicide of a lonely woman in the city turns out to be a rebirth for him.
In other hands, this might have been a wild neo-noir cauldron of steamy sex and violence. Or it could have just as easily gone down the kind of pretentious existential road we fear is coming whenever we see Hopper’s paintings on book covers. Pronzini has a more basic agenda. If his prose doesn’t stun, neither does it get in the way of a carefully constructed, satisfying story, as spare and honest as Hopper. Much more than a cosy mystery, and justification for finally ending Pronzini’s British publishing isolation.

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