BILL PRONZINI – A Killing in Xanadu. “Nameless” PI. Waves Press, hardcover [?]; softcover, 1980. Frontispiece by John Exley. 21 pages; limited to 150 copies signed by the author.

   The recent publishing silence from Ross Macdonald may indicate that he has laid down the Hammett-Chandler crown of private eyedom. There is no shortage of claimants to the succession. One the one hand there are the Chandler Lookalikes who adopt Chandler’s view of the world and, less happily, his loose approach to plot construction; in short, many detectives walk down pale imitations of Chandler’s Mean Streets. On the other hand are the Violent Voyeurs who confuse sex with social comment and violence with action.

   It seems to me, however, that there is one obvious candidate. In powers of characterization, sense of pace, compassion and stylistic excellence, the crown ought to belong to Bill Pronzini and his “Nameless” detective.

   Pronzini’s Nameless series may be most noteworthy in its relative lack of violence and explicit sex. Unlike other authors who try to hide a lack of invention by tossing in gratuitous killings and irrelevant beddings, Pronzini lets his plot and characters create the interest. Part of Pronzini’s ability is, of course, that he is inventive His plots move well, and they contain good detection. He gives the reader the same clues that Nameless has, and he revels in twists and turns leading to a final unexpected conclusion. In some ways, the Nameless series connects the private-eye tale with its emphasis on realistic description, and the classical detective tale with its emphasis on plot. (Most other claimants to the crown provide plenty of realistic detail but a rather predictable story,)

   Above all Nameless is vividly depicted; in his mid-50s, the moody, self-consciously sloppy, slightly paunchy private detective is a most sympathetic character. Unlike more pretentious authors, however, Pronzini does not have Nameless represent Everyman or summarize the human condition. But in many ways, Nameless’s weaknesses are ours as well, and we identify with him – as obviously Pronzini identifies with him. (We now know that Nameless’s first name is “Bill” and that his last name has a “z” in. the middle.)

   It is a sign of Pronzini’s stature that he is one of the few mystery writers to have a privately printed, limited edition to his credit. A Killing in Xanadu is a miniature summation of the strengths of the Nameless series. It begins with a deftly drawn portrait of a posh resort called Xanadu, made up of “a whole series of pleasure domes.” Nameless is there to deliver a subpoena: “No rich client, no smoky-hot liaison with a beautiful woman, no fat fee.”

   This is followed by a quick but precise characterization of a black attendant: “His eyes said that I would never make it up that hill over yonder … but then neither would he and the hell with it.” Nameless tracks down the cottage of the alcoholic recipient of the subpoena, but as he heads towards it he hears a single shot. After breaking down the door he sees a woman bending over a body. With the door locked and under observation, and all the windows locked, it seems obvious that he has located both the victim and the murderer.

   But based on the clue of a photographic negative (the subject of the negative makes no difference), Nameless discovers a particularly clever plot and quickly resolves the locked-room crime. Indeed, the plot is strong enough for a full-length novel (since Pronzini sometimes bases his novels on earlier short stories, it may eventually become a novel). The Solution to the locked room is as far as I know, new in fiction. Some may object to the fact that Nameless’s reconstruction of the murder takes 5½ pages, but – if it makes any difference – I approve. Pronzini’s narrative skill stops the explanation from dragging.

   This limited edition is. of high quality. It is typeset, rather than photo offset, and it is printed on slightly offwhite paper. The version in paper wrappers (which is the only one I’ve seen) comes with a dust jacket printed on much too white paper which will quickly show any signs of reading. Whether the pamphlet will eventually command a premium on the rare-book market, I don’t know, But how much would a limited edition of Hammett or Chandler or Macdonald from early in their careers go for now?

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 4, Number 2 (April, 1981). Permission granted by Doug Greene.