Bill Pronzini,
(Paperjacks, 1987)

The first line of Bill Pronzini's murder-mystery is, "The dead girl lay in a twisted sprawl, like something broken and carelessly discarded, among the reeds and bushes that grew along the edge of Lake Merced." Bam! That is how to start a mystery!

It turns out that the dead girl had in her purse the card of a private detective. As this book is part of a series called the Nameless Detective mysteries, the reader never learns the name on that card. But the police find it and call the Nameless Detective, who never heard of the dead girl. Nameless wonders how the victim got his card, and if he could have prevented her death if she had called him.

Nameless soon gets a different case, when a rich woman hires him to watch her bother, Martin Talbot. You see, Martin was a highly moral man who fell asleep while driving and caused an accident that killed a woman. The woman's husband, Victor Carding, called Martin a murderer and threatened to kill him. Martin is ridden with guilt, and might let Carding kill him, so Martin's sister wants Nameless to watch and unobtrusively guard Martin. But that does not work out too well, as Carding ends up dead, and Martin confesses to the murder. But was it murder, or did Carding suicide and Martin accept blame so he can be (un)justly punished for killing the woman in the accident and triggering the suicide of her grief-ridden husband? And where is Jerry Carding, the college-age son of Victor? Does any of this relate to the death of the girl found by the lake, who went to the same college as Jerry? Is the rich woman who hired Nameless somehow involved in any of the deaths?

The more that Nameless digs, the more he finds, but he finds more questions than answers, and the story keeps getting more tangled and complex. Are there two or three murders? Are any of them related? Is Jerry dead, or just in hiding? What does any of it have to do with fish-packing?

The first line of the story, quoted above, gives you a good sample of Pronzini's style. The writing is colorful, without being garish. I felt that the pace was a bit disrupted, with a big, fast start (i.e., the murder of the then-unknown girl), followed by a quiet period (i.e., detailing the boring job of watching Martin), but Pronzini hits the accelerator once Victor Carding dies and Nameless picks away at the disparate and seemingly unconnectible pieces of several mysteries that might or might not be intertwined. Nameless barely survives one long action sequence when his sleuthing blows up in his face after he finds much more than he looked for. Nameless is a good detective, but he is not perfect, and he is a rather ordinary person in most ways. That makes it easier for the reader to identify with him.

A good mystery, in my opinion, gives the reader enough clues so that the reader can try to keep pace with the detective, and neither solve it ahead of the protagonist, nor be so far behind that the solution seems to be derived from Divine Inspiration. Pronzini finds that balance in Labyrinth, and the reader ends up admiring Nameless, but also wondering if he or she should have figured it out too.

This is not great literature, and it probably is not a masterpiece of murder-mystery stories. It is a very good story, that is quite enjoyable to read. That is what I was looking for, and I found it.

review by
Chris McCallister

16 February 2008

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