By the late 1960s, the private-eye genre was a well-spent force, and the great names in its pantheon of heroes had either hung up their fedoras for good (Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe) or would be collecting their tarnished gold watch soon enough (Lew Archer). Within a few years, new heroes would start to revive the genre, including one who would go by the single, potent moniker of Spenser. In the meantime, though, it might well have seemed to a fledgling writer that the best way to introduce a new fictional private investigator was to give him no name at all. Certainly, in launching the “Nameless” detective with this début novel, Pronzini could point to the precedent of the Continental Op, an earlier legend of the PI genre who had no name to call his own.
In other ways, too, Pronzini nods at the dated and potentially obsolete status of his hero. First, he places Nameless on the far side of youth, rendering the sleuth as a 47-year-old former cop with a deep back story that features service as an MP during the Second World War. Erika, the sometime girlfriend of Nameless, refers to him as “old bear,” and the detective himself—who narrates his own exploits—draws attention to his silver-gray hair and his creaking bones. Since the Nameless series would roll on for another four decades (the latest entry, The Betrayers, came out this year), its protagonist eventually had to become not just nameless, but ageless. Second, and more intriguingly, Pronzini casts his private eye as a collector and enthusiast of the pulp magazines that flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s, and especially of those titles (Black Mask, Dime Detective) that featured “private dicks” and other solo crime-fighters. Nameless thus hails from a tradition that he knows to be practically defunct, its memory preserved only in the brittle, fraying pages of hard-to-find, out-of-print periodicals. Erika makes that connection explicit in a highly charged confrontation with him:
“You want to know the real reason you quit the police force to open up that agency of yours, the real deep-down reason? I’ll tell you: it was and is an obsession to be just like those pulp-magazine detectives and you never would have been satisfied until you’d tried it. Well, now you’ve tried it, for ten years you’ve tried it, and you just don’t want to let go, you can’t let go. You’re living in a world that doesn’t exist and never did, in an era that’s twenty-five years dead. You’re a kid dreaming about being a hero.”
(The Nameless franchise is eminently modern in the extent to which it focuses on the personal travails of its protagonist. He might lack a name, but he doesn’t lack for an amply fleshed-out identity. Between his heartfelt relationship talks with Erika and his struggles to quit smoking, Nameless comes across more as Spenser’s cousin than he does as the son of Spade or Marlowe.)
In this first chronicled adventure, Nameless hires on to handle the ransom payoff in a kidnapping case. Venturing from his home base in San Francisco, he enters the luxe realm of the Martinettis, who reside down the Peninsula in the sylvan paradise of Hillsborough. Financier Louis Martinetti doesn’t trust the police to deal with the man who snatched his 9-year-old son, Gary, from a military prep school. Nor is it clear that he trusts, or should trust, the members of his own household—including his much younger wife, Karyn, and his secretary, an oily fellow named Proxmire. Nameless, on the appointed evening, takes a briefcase that contains $300,000 in cash to a secluded location chosen by the kidnapper. Then all hell breaks loose. An unknown party descends upon the scene, kills the man who abducted Gary, grabs the briefcase, and leaves the detective with a knife wound in his gut. Was the whole thing an inside job? That seems likely, given that no one had discussed the dropoff plan outside the confines of the Martinetti house.
Pronzini sets forth these events in a manner that’s occasionally clumsy or ponderous; he hasn’t yet developed, as he later would, the firm hand of a professional storyteller. But the story that he tells is a decent one. The plot, deceptive in its overt simplicity, has a neat and convincing arc to it, and Nameless discerns its trajectory in a cleverly framed moment of discovery. Just when hope—and, he fears, Erika—have all but abandoned him, he experiences a jolt of insight that turns the case around. It comes as he stares at an issue of the pulp magazine Detective Fiction Weekly, on display in a bookstore window in Burlingame. By following that lead to its violent end point, he proves that there’s more than a little of the pulp-style hero in his fading, dog-eared soul, after all.