Sat 29 May 2010
BILL PRONZINI - Snowbound. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1974. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, UK, hc, 1975. Reprint editions: Fawcett Crest, pb, 1975; Futura, UK, pb, 1975; Carroll & Graf, pb, 1994; Stark House Press, trade pb, 2007 (combined with Games).
This was the first of many books by Bill Pronzini that I have read, and one whose story and execution has stayed with me for many years. It is almost a model of how to do a closed world suspense novel (i.e. a suspense novel set in a single confined location such as Joseph Hayes Desperate Hours or W.L. Heath’s Violent Saturday) and a perfect blend of action, suspense, and character development.
Hidden Valley is a small isolated mountain town where nothing much happens. This is the story of one week, from December 17th to December 23rd when a snow storm cuts them off from the rest of the world, and the town is enveloped in terror.
Likely anyone who has ever been on a ski trip in the Western States has seen this little scene, passed through or visited this little town. It is typical of Pronzini that in so few words he sketches in this familiar setting and yet subtly paints a slightly ominous note — the “dark winter-afternoon sky” and the “vaguely fraudulent” look of the village foreshadow what is to come without any hint of manipulating the reader or forcing his vision.
Zachary Cain, is a newcomer to Hidden Valley. He lives in an A-frame cabin and while friendly enough is something of a mystery. All anyone really knows is he may come from San Francisco and receives a monthly check.
In Sacramento a heist is going down — a big cash-and-carry giant department store is being hit by three men: Brodie, the wheel man, capable and intelligent; Loxner, big and slow witted, not the man they wanted for the job; and, Kubion, the brains, the planner. But the best laid plans as the saying goes … the whole thing goes wrong.
Meanwhile in the valley individuals private lives unknowingly move toward unexpected crisis as their lives are about to spiral out of control.
If you have ever read a suspense novel you know where this is going. Pronzini makes no bones about that as he sets the action up with a kind of grim inevitability that like Hidden Valley is both unreal and achingly true to life. The mark of a great suspense novelist is that ability to let you see what he is doing and at the same time keep you turning the page as the inevitable happens. Pronzini is a master and shows it here.
Like one of those John D. MacDonald novels where a series of disparate people are drawn together toward a moment of violence and crisis Snowbound has an inevitability about it like watching a car wreck happening and not being able to do anything about it. You want to shout out, to warn someone, but no one is listening. No one can hear you, or would listen if they could…
I won’t give away much plot detail. The crooks reach Hidden Valley and a slide closes the only road out of town. Kubion begins to plot how to get out and to take advantage of the situation by effectively holding up the entire valley, aware that they are sitting ducks when the road opens and the police begin to pour in. Meanwhile local tensions grow and the reader begins to sense that pressure like a pot about to boil over. Something has to give…
And give it does in a sudden display of violence, and as the fear and helplessness of the villagers and the brutality and desperation of the criminals dovetail together it becomes increasingly certain that the outsider Zachary Cain is the only man equipped to restore order with his own brand of chaotic violence and his own need for redemption.
Cain, it turns out has something to prove to himself, something to atone for, and maybe if he can save the people of this small village from these three brutal men he can save his own soul.
Along the way Pronzini draws a number of well-etched characters among the villagers with an almost cinematic eye and a few deft strokes of the pen — just enough that their fates matter to us, but not so much that their stories get in the way of the building tension and suspense. That’s a fine line to walk, and it is a tribute to his skill at writing this sort of book that he makes it look effortless.
The action is orchestrated like an Alistair MacLean novel, and the suspense rapidly reaches the unbearable level as Kubion goes increasingly blood simple in his desperation and Cain’s growing personal involvement raises the emotional stakes for him.
It is difficult to review a book like this without giving away too much. Let me just say the payoff is both viscerally and emotionally satisfying in the way only the best suspense novels ever manage to be.
The writing, as always with Pronzini’s books, is simple but evocative. Little bits of action or lines that stick in the mind: Kubion rocking in the armored car after the hold-up goes wrong repeating the same words over and over in “a savage litany”; Matt Hughes, a local whose passions will inadvertently set off the violence who suffers from an “almost boyish recklessness”; the people of the village gathered in the local church, “balanced precariously on the edge of panic”; and a dying man as “the black red mist grows and twists through his mind like a helix”.
Parallel with his private eye novels about Nameless (among them some fine examples of the suspense novel within the hard boiled framework), his westerns, anthologies and criticism, Pronzini has continued to write outstanding suspense novels, alone and with Barry Malzberg and others. His skills at this form of story are considerable and have continued to grow, but this one is very close to a blueprint for how this should be done.
And I mean this as the highest of compliments, when you turn the last page you will swear you have seen the movie. That’s something only the best suspense novels achieve.