I always knew, but was recently reminded, that the longest-running series in mystery fiction is Bill Pronzini's Nameless series. It began in 1971 and continues through today. The most recent title is BETRAYERS, and I understand that the next installment, HELLBOX, will be published this summer.
Over the years, we've watched Nameless age and take on partners in his San Francisco-based detective agency, including the stoic Jake Runyon, the enterprising Alex Chavez, and the sassy computer expert, Tamara. While I haven't read every book in the series over the past 40 or so years, I have ready many of them, and I can't remember a clunker in the bunch.
How do I like Pronzini? Let me count the ways.
First, Pronzini makes everything look so effortless. The books, which sometimes have a hardboiled element to them, are as smooth as cream. Pronzini knows how to pack meaning into each and every word, so readers never find themselves wading through endless verbiage to get to the point.
Pronzini also keeps in mind what so many other seem to have forgotten: Longer isn't better. He's like the writers for the old Crime Club, who told their story, turned their characters upside down, and threw in a twist every couple of chapters for 180 tight pages. As a result, the books are extremely fast reading, made all the more enjoyable by the multiple plot strands Pronzini tends to weave, especially in later books.
I think crime fiction, especially first novels, tend to suffer from the "anxiety of influence" that Harold Bloom talked about. Many writers (admittedly, not all of them, but those who are more serious about their careers and success) ask themselves how they are going to make their mark. A lot of them think it's going to happen with some wacky character or a series of punning titles. As a result the books can get loopy and forced - or, on the other side of the coin, pretentious and ponderous. Pronzini has never been a show-off; he does what he does with consummate skill, even when he's pulling off some really twisted plot turns (I particularly like FEVER in this regard).
I think I've said in the past that I like to see themes explored in crime fiction, but not in a heavy-handed way. For me at least, this is the sign of someone who thinks a lot about his or her writing. I'm all for escapism, and I publish plenty of it, proudly. But I like when books make you think just a little bit beyond the last page. And Pronzini's themes are there, proudly and overtly, in his one-word titles. In FEVER, for example, he explores different types of fever, including gambling, series of extramarital affairs, and others. In CAMOUFLAGE, his theme is the unseen camouflage people wear to hide their true motives or personalities. SCHEMERS and BETRAYERS are pretty self-explanatory...and I can't wait to see what HELLBOX is all about.
Finally, I like that Pronzini has written books outside the Nameless series - books like THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE, which are just as good as the Nameless books.
I think the new generation of aspiring writers can learn a lot from Pronzini - about jumping into a story immediately, about making characters tough but real, about plotting, about not writing the same book a dozen times. He's a passage from FEVER:
The big hype is that cell phones are one of the wonders of the modern age. Bells and whistles galor. You can talk to others, receive voice and text messages, send text messages, take photographs, play music and games, access your e-mail, and, for all I know, track the progress of herds of elephants on the African veldt. All in one self-contained little unit that fits in your shirt pocket and the palm of your hand. Some people seem to worship the things; they're the ones you see every day on streets and highways and sidewalks and in public buildings with cells guled to their ears and rapt, satisifed expressions on their faces. Instant telecommunication orgasms delivered by your choice of jaunty, sappy tunes and other fun electronic noises... A phone, in my old-fashioned world, is an instrument that provides necessary--emphasis on the word necessary--access to another person for a definite purpose. IT is not a toy. It is not a source of public auditory (or visual) masturbation. Above all, it should not be, but too often is, an annoying, attention-distracting, accident-causing, self-indulgent plaything used at others' expense... [But] once you give people a fancy new toy, you'd better not try to take it away from them; it produces tantrums, and in adults tantrums can sometimes be accompanied by guns, knives, and other deadly weapons. (pp. 182-185).
Right on, Bill. If, someday, this blog goes blank, you will know it is because I have been killed by someone who is texting while driving. I see that every single day of my life.