Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Bill Pronzini has been one of the most prolific and influential crime writers of the last four decades. It’s past time this feature included some of his work, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Snatch, the first of his Nameless series.
The story begins when San Francisco PI Nameless (I’m going to follow the convention here) goes to the home of wealthy Louis Martinetti, who lives in an upmarket area called Hillsborough. Martinetti tells Nameless that his son Gary has been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding three hundred thousand dollars in ransom. At first, Nameless thinks he’s beinig hired to find the boy. But Martinetti has a different purpose in mind. He’s been warned that one and only one person is to drop the money off at the specified location. Then, so Gary’s abductors say, Martinetti will be informed where his son can be found.
At first, Nameless suggests strongly that Martinetti tell the police. They are in a much better position to find the boy and safely return him than a civilian, even a PI, is. But Martinetti is adamantly opposed to involving any police. He says that if he does contact the police, Gary will be killed. All he wants Nameless to do is to take the ransom money to the drop-off point and leave it there. And for that, he’s willing to pay fifteen hundred dollars (this is the end of the 1960’s, when fifteen hundred dollars meant quite a lot more than it does today). Nameless finally agrees, and prepares to play his part in the exchange of money for the boy.
The next day, Nameless picks up the money from Martinetti and drives to the appointed place. He’s just finished doing his share of the work when everything goes wrong. The expression ‘All hell breaks loose’ has perhaps become cliché over time, but it’s actually an effective choice for what happens at this point.
With the direction of the investigation completely changed now, Nameless has to decide what to do next. Martinetti wants him to take one course of action. However, Martinetti’s partner Allan Channing and his secretary Dean Proxmire have other ideas. And Nameless’ lover Erika Coates has her own opinion about what ought to be done.
Through all of this, Nameless makes his own mind up about what to do. As we follow along, we learn what happened to Gary, and how the kidnapping affects everyone involved with it. And in the end, we find out what’s behind it all.
And that’s one important element in the story: the impact of abduction. Louis Martinetti and his wife Karyn are both devastated by the fact that Gary is missing. They don’t handle it in exactly the same way, but it’s clear that this is a truly horrible experience for both of them. And Nameless picks up on that awful sense of loss. Pronzini takes the experience of kidnapping to a very human, individual level.
Another important factor in the novel is the fact that Louis Martinetti is a wealthy and powerful man. Through his life and that of his family and associates, we get a look at the lives of San Francisco’s richest people. And the view isn’t always a pleasant one. Martinetti is in some ways hard-edged, and Channing is even more so. On the one hand, he is instrumental in gathering the ransom money. On the other, he is obsessed with that investment (that’s how he sees it). He’s only willing to help if he thinks that the boy has a good chance of being returned. And later in the novel, here’s what Nameless has to say to him:
“It must be hell to be a man like you, Channing,’ I said. ‘It must be pure hell to value a sum of money more than the life of a nine-year-old boy.”
There are other unpleasant things too that we learn about these wealthy people. In this, Pronzini’s work arguably reflects similar themes in work by Raymond Chandler. Both authors comment on the decadance of the ‘beautiful people.’
And then there’s the character of Nameless himself. He’s a loner, although readers who dislike drunken, demon-haunted sleuths will be pleased to note that he’s not that sort of detective. As the series goes on, Nameless evolves, but at this point, he is more interested in what you might call the fight for justice than he is in the personal work and intimacy required for a long-term relationship. He’s a former police officer who
‘..stuck it out for fifteen years, because I believed then – and I still believe now – that the prevention of crime and the interests of justice and the law are of vital and immediate concern.’
Still, fifteen years was enough. And after one particularly horrific murder, Nameless went into the PI business. He is in some ways naïve. But at the same time, readers who are tired of jaded detectives who are almost as reprehensible as the people they go after will be pleased to see that Nameless has a solid core of integrity. Oh, and he’s an avid fan of pulp fiction such as Dime Detective and Black Mask.
The pace of the story is fairly quick, and there are a few twists in the plot. However, readers who prefer spare, ‘lean’ writing will notice that there is also a great deal of description in the story too:
‘She [Erika] had the gas logs burning in the small false fireplace at one end of the room, and it was warm and comfortable in there. The apartment itself was neat and feminine, furnished in Danish Modern, with a lot of frilly throw pillows and some quite white-and-black fluff rugs and a big panda bear setting in one corner like a naughty child. The walls were filled with wood and glass figurines on dainty shelves, and impressionistic and experimental prints…Over the door leading to the kitchen was a funny little scroll plaque that said: Evil Is a Very Bad Thing.’
There are also detailed descriptions of the characters and the San Francisco setting for the story.
The story itself isn’t exactly one of those ‘It all works out in the end,’ sort of stories. But there is some wit in it. And although some very unpleasant things happen, Nameless continues to be determined to do his best to set the world right.
The Snatch is the story of what happens when an abduction touches the lives of the rich and powerful. It takes place in a distinctive San Francisco-area setting, and introduces an iconic fictional sleuth. But what’s your view? Have you read The Snatch? If so, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 22 December /Tuesday 23 December – Malicious Intent – Kathryn Fox
Monday 29 December/Tuesday 30 December – Mercy – Jussi Adler-Olsen
Monday 5 January/Tuesday 6 January – Confessions – Kanae Minato