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31 december 2010
I picked up Bill Pronzini's Fever in my public library . . . well, to be completely forthcoming, I picked up his latest "Nameless" title Betrayers (2010), only to find that the last reader had evidently dropped it into a toilet. I have no fear of used and library books – dogears and greyed margins hold no terror for me – but there are some limits even I will not cross.
So, since Betrayers was a no-go, I stepped back a couple of novels in the Nameless series and chose Fever. I'd never read Pronzini before, but Fever lived up to its generous jacket blurbs. (Note to self: how many more good detective series that number in the 20s or more can you possibly be unaware of? And how many lifetimes would it take to read them all?)
I'm obviously, then, unacquainted with the formulas and mannerisms of the Nameless series. This is bad in some ways but good in that I'm forced to treat Fever itself as a stand-alone novel. How successful is it? It held my attention; I read it quickly. (I'm not sure whether the latter is an unmixed virtue, but blurbs always stress fast-paced reading as a positive feature.)
But I also got interested in Pronzini's characters. Fever is told from three perspectives. One is a first-person narrator's (the character just called "Bill," I guess otherwise nameless, but Italian-American and possibly an avatar of the author). The other two are Tamara, a young black woman who runs Bill's detective agency, and Jake, a white forty-something stolid ex-cop with a drastic lack of happiness in his life.
Jake and Tamara get a perspective on the action in third-person, limited-perspective chapters interleaved with Bill's more garrulous narration. The three private detectives converge on two baffling cases that echo each other: two middle-class people (a white woman and a black man) have dropped out of their conventional lives to follow feverish obsessions. The woman's is gambling; the man's is – well, nobody's sure what it is, though his ex-fiancée considers it "sick, sick, sick."
Both mystery plots are clever and well-twisted. Both are grounded in psychology and draw from the best human-interest noir traditions (more like Otto Preminger than Mickey Spillane, let's say). There's a little too much sociological exposition for my taste (several pages of Fever give statistics on the extent of gambling in the United States in the 21st century).
Meanwhile, all three of the central characters pursue character arcs that clearly extend over more than one novel. The basic structure is not cinematic but televisual: a team of detectives, each with his or her personal concerns, solving a pair of crimes in time for the ten o'clock news.
I'm ready for the next episode, if I can find an unsubmersed copy.
Pronzini, Bill. Fever: A Nameless detective novel. New York: Tom Doherty, 2008.