Bill Pronzini,
(Paperjacks, 1988)

When a small development company tries to buy out an old Gold Rush ghost town to build a resort, the few reclusive residents, who have created a sort of artists colony for hermits, are not happy. When the principal owner of the development company dies in a fire, with no obvious evidence that it was anything other than an accident, the man's insurance company is suspicious and hires a detective, whose name the reader never learns, to investigate and make sure there was no foul play. The private detective, who is a retired police officer, was about to go on vacation with his girlfriend, Kerry, but he cannot afford to turn down the job. Solution? He offers to take Kerry along, and she agrees. But there are more deaths and fires looming on the horizon, and the residents of Musket Creek (once known by a name so colorful I cannot put it here) are such a bizarre group that the nameless detective has more suspects than he knows what to do with.

Other complicating factors include the financial instability of the development company and the not-very-proper habits of its other owners.

Bill Pronzini scores on character development, credibility, plot twists and the tone of writing. The nameless detective is a good guy who is rather unexceptional. As a matter of fact, he is exceptionally unexceptional to the point where the reader genuinely feels like he or she could step into his shoes and take over. In other words, it is very easy to identify with the protagonist. He is adept at his job, but not brilliant, and much of his success comes more from doggedness than from any unusual ability or arcane knowledge. The nameless detective is, in that way, the antithesis of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's nearly omniscient, nearly infallible Sherlock Holmes, or the extreme-in-most-ways Mongo character created by George Hasbro. Kerry is also very likeable, albeit with definite flaws. The residents of Musket Creek, while certainly an eccentric bunch, never step over the line from eccentric into the territory of the absurd or not credible.

When I read a mystery, I look for balance between solvability and suspense. For me, an ideal mystery story is one where the protagonists neither gets too far ahead of me (e.g., solves it before I have had any chance to do so) nor lags behind me (i.e., I have it figured out while the protagonist remains quite lost). In Nightshades, I do solve a few pieces of the mystery ahead of the detective, but he is generally ahead of me. Also, once I knew the answers to the mystery, I could look back and, with one exception, the clues were there that might have enabled me to piece the puzzle together.

You might have noticed that I talked about the pieces, plural, to this mystery. The mystery ends up having enough segments to it that there is room for enough plot-twists to really enliven the story, but not so many that it collapses under the burden of its own complexity.

This was my first experience with a book by Bill Pronzini, and I was not accustomed to his writing. Early in the book, I wondered if Pronzini was trying to resurrect Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe character. But Pronzini put me at ease with this suspicion of being derivative when he had his protagonist say he was trying to do a Marlowe tough-guy imitation, only to have the facade ruined when he can't contain a big sneeze at a very critical moment in his attempt to intimidate a possible informant.

By now, you have most likely gathered that I enjoyed this book, and you would be correct. The book is only 148 pages, and it flew by. It was genuinely fun to read, and would be perfect reading while sitting under a nice tree or on the beach, or while flying from New York to Denver. I am not enough of a mystery-reader to make comprehensive comparisons, but I doubt two things: I doubt this is one of the greatest mystery novels ever written, but I also doubt a fan of the genre would be disappointed. It was a fun reading experience.

review by
Chris McCallister

6 September 2008

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