“Zigzag” by Bill Pronzini

Zigzag by Bill PronziniOne of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my life was the summer in which I read all of Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective novels. I was underemployed, so while I had a lot of time on my hands, I couldn’t afford to buy all of those long-out-of-print books. But with the help of three different library systems, I managed to borrow every single title, from 1971’s The Snatch to the “final” book in the series (#29!), Bleeders.

Luckily for me (and all the other Nameless fans out there), Pronzini acquired a new publisher and decided to continue his series, though it took a very different turn as his iconic PI entered the 21st century. No longer a lone-wolf detective, Nameless acquired a name (Bill) and a much-younger, ambitious associate named Tamara, a computer whiz who helped modernize her 60-year-old boss’s agency. Soon, Tamara was joined by a couple of other PIs, most notably the brooding, romantically-troubled ex-cop Jake Runyon. As Tamara and Jake took on more work, allowing Bill to semi-retire, the books began to include third-person chapters told from their points of view, interspersed with Bill’s usual first-person narration.

After binging on nearly 30 Nameless books, I now have to content myself with a single novel each year. When it arrives, I know I’m in for a few hours of pure reading entertainment. The latest Nameless, Zigzag, is not a novel but a collection, consisting of two short stories and two novellas. All are written from Bill’s point of view, making it more of a traditional Nameless Detective book than the last few entries in the series.

First we have the title novella, in which Bill is investigating a fairly routine accident; when he goes to interview a potential witness, he stumbles upon the scene of a recent homicide. The widow of one of the dead men hires Bill to investigate further after the cops close the case. Then there are two short stories, the poignant “Grapplin'” and slight-but-fun “Nightscape,” followed by “Revenant,” which has nothing to do with the Leonardo DiCaprio film (no bears!) but does enmesh Bill in a type of crime I don’t believe he’s ever investigated before: one involving the occult. A frail, sickly, very rich woman is convinced she is being stalked by a dead man; she’s convinced she’s seen him lurking in the shadows of her Atherton mansion. “Whatever was going on here had a rational, not supernatural, explanation,” Bill tells himself after speaking with his client. “Soul-stealing evil spirits from beyond the grave… Such things couldn’t possibly exist in the modern world.”

Bill was a World War II vet in his late 40s in the first Nameless book, so realistically, he’d be pushing 90 by now instead of in his mid-60s. However, while the PI has only aged by 17 or 18 years, San Francisco, his home base, continues to change; there’s probably an interesting study to be done of how The City has been depicted in Pronzini’s series, from the gritty early 70s to the tech boom of today. (His agency’s offices are located in the South Park neighborhood, home to numerous start-ups and tech firms.) Pronzini himself now lives in Sonoma County, but he obviously keeps tabs on the ever-changing Bay Area.

Zigzag may be the 45th book in the series, but since it focuses on Bill and his cases, without delving too deeply into the backstories of the PI, his family, or his associates, it would be easy enough to jump in even if you’ve never read any of the other Nameless Detective books. Still, the best way to enjoy the series is to start at #1 and read them in order. (Don’t skip the other books of short stories, especially 1983’s Casefile, which details a crime which turns out to have a huge impact on the PI a few books down the road.) The good news is that the entire series is back in print, available in ebook, paperback and even audio format. The Nameless Detective may be semi-retired, but I hope he continues to solve cases for many years to come.

Thanks to my friend Janet of Mystery Readers International for giving me a review copy of Zigzag. It will be published in May by Forge Books.

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