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2 january 2011
Schemers, which follows Fever in Bill Pronzini's Nameless detective series, offers three detectives and two cases, just like its predecessor. The two cases both involve scheming, to be sure, but otherwise they couldn't be less alike. One is a sadistic-madman suspenser from the school of Henning Mankell; the other is a locked-room mystery, set among the upper crust, which might as well be from the case files of John Dickson Carr.
Over-annealed operative Jake Runyon handles the madman mystery. Somebody's been desecrating the grave of a mild-mannered dentist, and tossing hydrochloric acid around the possessions, if not yet the persons, of the dentists' surviving sons. Someone must have a "hate-on" for the dentist, yet who goes to such lengths to avenge a bad root canal?
Meanwhile, Nameless Bill, though semi-retired, takes on the locked-room case. An impossible millionaire somehow called "Gregory Pollexfen" reports that the most valuable books in his unique collection of old detective novels have gone missing from his library. The theft can't have happened: the room is always double-locked, and not even Colonel Mustard with a lead pipe could have gotten in and out with the tomes.
The cops are stumped. In the manner of all fictional cops since "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," they look only at the superficial evidence. But our heros think like schemers themselves. Like so many private-eye crimes, the acid-splashings aren't aimed at the victims but at some secret linked to them at several removes. And the book theft isn't what it appears to be, either. Pollexfen must have snatched the books himself – but how, and for what earthly reason?
The private lives of our three heroes forge on. Tamara and Jake have new loves. Bill is savoring his old one, a wife newly recovered from cancer.
Nameless is a smart series because it knows the conventions of the detective novel so well. (This consciousness is on special display in the Pollexfen plot of Schemers, where the fictions of both pulp and literary masters are themselves pawns in the chess game between criminal genius and private eye.) Bill, Tamara, and Jake are believable 21st-century folks who find themselves in a succession of mystery puzzles drawn from the stock of 20th-century fiction. We get our escapism and our slice of life on the same tray.
Pronzini, Bill. Schemers: A Nameless detective novel. New York: Tom Doherty, 2009.