In The Spotlight: Bill Pronzini’s The Snatch

>In The Spotlight: P.D. Martin's Body CountHello, All,

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


Filed under Bill Pronzini, The Snatch

20 responses to “In The Spotlight: Bill Pronzini’s The Snatch

  1. Clarissa Draper

    I haven’t read the book but I think that the abduction theme can really pull at the heart-strings if done well and it seems like it has been done well here. Thanks for the review.

    • Clarissa – I’ll be interested in your reaction to this novel if you get the chance to read it. One thing that I personally think works well is that the story doesn’t ‘go overboard.’ It’s clear how devastating the abduction is, but it’s not ‘beaten to death,’ if I can put it that way. And that makes the story all the more effective.

  2. You make me want to read this again. I guess I read it in the 70s sometime, and since have read 24 of the 40 Nameless books, but I need to finish up that series. Easy to do, because my husband has all of them. Great overview, Margot.

  3. Ms. Kinberg, I have been meaning to read Bill Pronzini’s “Nameless” series for a long time and your excellent review tells me what I’ve been missing. Abduction, especially of children, is a sensitive area and authors would write about it from the point of view of the distraught parents. Although, not all parents of missing or kidnapped children are necessarily devastated, as evident from A STRANGER IN THE FAMILY where author Robert Bernard gives child abduction a very different twist.

    • Prashant – I’m very glad you mentioned Barnard – such a talented author – and A Stranger in the Family. As you rightly point out, the whole topic of children being taken is particularly sensitive and can be nerve-wracking. And a lot of novels, including this one, tell such stories from the point of view of the parents whose child has been taken. I hope that if you get the chance to try this series, you’ll enjoy it.

  4. Great choice Margot – I do like this series a lot and although it has changed quite a lot from the debut, I still think it was a very memorable start to an amazingly long-lived series (40 plus volumes and counting).

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. And you’re absolutely right; this series is a really durable one. Part of that may be exactly what you mention about the way it’s changed over time. Possibly the series’ flexibility and evolution has helped it to stay strong.

  5. I have read some Pronzini but not this one.

  6. I haven’t read any of this series – sounds good! But it put me in mind of another very different book of almost the same name – Rennie Airth’s ‘Snatch’ – also about child abduction, but done as comedy. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Hmm…the two could work as one of those awful ‘compare and contrast’ exercises we used to have to do at school… 😉

    • FictionFan – 😆 I’ve heard of the Airth (must confess that I’ve not read it). It really is interesting how two different takes on the topic can result in two such different books. And yet, both have been really successful, etc.. And where on earth would education be without ‘compare-and-contrast’ exercises? 😉

  7. I’ve read a few of the Nameless books – but nothing like 40! I like abduction stories, there’s room for good plots there, and this one sounds like a zinger.

    • Moira – I’ve not read all of the Nameless books either – yikes! And you’re definitely right about the possibilities there are with abduction stories. They can be as light, funny, dark, bleak, plot-twisting, etc. as the author wants. This one has some really interesting plot twists, in my opinion.

  8. Margot – Thanks for featuring a Bill Pronzini title. I confess I’ve not read any of the “Nameless” series but I’m fond of two of his nonfiction offerings: Gun in Cheek and Son of Gun in Cheek. They are his self-described studies of alternative crime fiction, in other words, really bad crime fiction. His commentaries are so entertaining and spot on I’m encouraged to read some of the authors, bad writers as they may be.

    • Bryan – Oh, I think Pronzini is one of the most influential and talented crime writers out there. This feature wouldn’t have been the same without a Pronzini novel. Thanks for recommending his non-fiction. I ought to read it…

  9. I’ve read many of Pronzini’s NAMELESS novels and enjoyed them all. Bill Pronzini is a consummate professional writer. The quality of all of his books is high

  10. In 1971, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on three new area mystery writers, Stephen Greenleaf (Grave Error), Geoffrey Miller (Black Glove) and Bill Pronzini (The Snatch). I went out and bought the novel by each of them, and really liked all three, though at the time the Greenleaf was my favorite. Over time, while that series got (my opinion, of course) weaker, Pronzini’s books just got better and better from an already strong start. I’ve reread this one and it still holds up, with the themes you describe and the character and sense of place. An excellent series, well worth read (in order, I think, but many stand alone).

    Thanks for the review, Margot, always good to remind us of a terrific writer, series and book.

    • Richard – Thanks for that perspective. I find it very interesting to see what happens with authors and their work as time goes by. As you say, some (such as Pronzini) just keep getting better over time. Others spark and then fade, so to speak. And still others never really do ‘take off.’ Pronzini’s work really has stood the test of time, and I’m always happy to remind folks of good work and introduce it to people who may not have read it yet.

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