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12 january 2011

Betrayers, the most recent Nameless novel by Bill Pronzini, was the first that ever caught my eye – though, as I related in a sad story earlier here, the first copy I held was somewhat the worse for wear. After reading a couple of other recent Nameless titles, I scoured local public libraries and came up with a pristine Betrayers. It is a high-quality read, like the others in the series.

Pronzini is a detective-novelist's detective novelist, versed in classic themes and situations, and he's kept his series current in terms of law, technologies, and the changing demographics of urban America. Nameless (which I'm now a great expert on, having read the last three :) is a series that has kept a core identity while adapting with the times. Not all crime series do that: Maigret, for one, eventually bought a TV set, but in other respects used the same methods in the 1960s as he had in the 1930s.

In fact, the subtle differences between Nameless and other series bring up the question of what a series consists of: core similarities across many texts, individual adaptations within a situation format, or individual brilliances?

In many respects, Nameless is a series of interwoven, sometimes interlinked short stories. Take Betrayers, as long as I'm ostensibly reviewing it. Each of our detectives – Tamara, Bill, and Jake – pursues a different case. The cases don't converge, and are only very loosely associable under the heading of betrayal. Tamara's been misled by a casual boyfriend who turns out to be an identity thief and then turns out to be a big-con grifter. Bill has to solve a "cutie" mystery more worthy of Encyclopedia Brown than Sam Spade: who's been dressing up like a ghost to terrify an old woman? Jake is on a "skip-trace" assignment to corral a bail-jumper when he uncovers a noirish murder plot.

Three short stories, but in fact, there are more stories than that. Bill, having dealt with the Case of the Supposed Ghost, has trouble at home, involving his teenage daughter and a stash of cocaine. Jake's new girlfriend Bryn is downcast because she suspects her young son is the target of his father's abuse. All the plot lines in Betrayers start in mundane fashion, and all except the "cutie" develop thriller-fashion into sudden, complicated violence.

It's a novel that lulls you in and then ambushes you. But is it a novel at all? I've called Nameless "televisual," and I'm certainly not the first to realize that. Like a long-running TV series, the books use a comfortable framework to launch short crime-story ideas, tying them up by the last chapter. In such a genre, individual "novels" matter far less than single stories or large-scale elements of ambiance. Like other series writers, Pronzini has really spent years constructing a single large fictional universe. These multiple, nonintersecting universes are among the most salient literary achievements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Pronzini, Bill. Betrayers: A Nameless detective novel. New York: Tom Doherty, 2010.