Pronzini, best known for his long-running “Nameless” detective series, here gives his protagonist a moniker that signals an old-fashioned faith in the power of names—in the alignment between what one is called and what one is called to do. Jim Messenger, a mild-mannered accountant on the cusp of midlife, finds himself delivering unwelcome news to Beulah, Nevada, after tracing a certain mystery woman to that town. Not knowing the woman’s actual name at first, Messenger has given her one of his own: Ms. Lonesome. Earlier, while observing her in a San Francisco café, he had become transfixed by her aura of solitude. Then, before he could get to know her, she committed suicide, and he resolved to discover who she was and what had led her to that bluest, most lonesome of fates. But when he arrives in Beulah to pursue that quest, the townfolk there reject his “message.” They believe that the woman, Anna Roebuck, brutally murdered her husband and young daughter many months earlier, and they want no part of her memory.
For Messenger, meanwhile, the change of scenery spurs a rejuvenation of character. In effect, he has the ultimate dude-ranch experience. The hard desert life and the clean desert air liberate him from urban enervation, transforming him from a clock-punching CPA into a dragon-slaying ranch-hand. The “dragon,” in this deftly modulated mystery cum Western cum fairy tale, is the body of secrets and lies that drove Ms. Lonesome from town. Those secrets and lies haunt the town still. In attempting to dispel them, Messenger encounters spite and suspicion, gets lured into a viper pit, gleans the true identity of the Roebucks’ killer, and meets a local woman with whom he conquers his own loneliness. His final message is to himself: Follow your passion, embrace risk, and beware of snakes.