Created by Bill Pronzini (1943–)
In a master stroke (or maybe just a happy accident), it took Bill Pronzini years to get around to naming his private eye protagonist. But by then he had made him such a well-rounded, finely-drawn character that a name seemed almost superflous. Even now, years later, when we all know his name (it’s Bill), most of his fans still think of him as “NAMELESS.”
Middle-aged, out of shape, content with a cold beer and one of his beloved pulp magazines to read, Nameless was the detective as Everyman; the first true couch potato P.I. A decent man, a good man, the kind of guy who’d stop and lend you a hand if your car broke down, or give up his seat on the bus for a pregnant lady. The kind of guy you’d play poker with, or see at a ballgame with hotdog mustard on his sleeve. Of course, he’s not just another not-so-pretty face. He’s also a tenacious detective, as dedicated to his profession as Hammett’s Continental Op, and just as shrewd. In fact, Pronzini often pays homage to Hammett (and the whole gumshoe genre, in fact) as Nameless tromps down the same San Francisco mean streets that the Op went down over eighty years ago.
Maybe not as hard-boiled, or as hard-drinking, but he’s no softie, either. Pronzini has definitely put his hero through the wringer: heartbreak, cancer, capture by a psychopath, betrayal by his best friend, even fatherhood. Enough slings and arrows of day-to-day and outrageous fortune to fill a lifetime, which is actually the point — the series is a chronicle of one man’s life and times.
The series offers a wide-range of formats and styles, from short shorts, to full-blown novels, from retro-hardboiled and locked-room mysteries to good humoured collaborations with other writers and the modern noir of 1991’s “Soul’s Burning.” Over two dozen novels and three-score short stories since 1967.
My personal favourite? Probably 1988’s Shackles, as nasty a locked room mystery as imaginable; as Pronzini (no stranger to the horror genre) rachets up the tension to Stephen King levels of dread.
Always a critical darling, though never true best-sellers, the twenty-sixth novel in the long-running series, Crazybone (2000), ended with the intriguing possibility that Nameless and his lady friend Kerry would adopt a child, suggesting a move far from the hard-edged dramas of a lone wolf private eye. In fact, at the time a rather discouraged Pronzini let it be known (in Mystery & Detective Monthly and perhaps elsewhere) that he wasn’t going to write any more Nameless novels, unless he got an exceptional offer from some publisher. However, he planned to end the series on an upbeat note and to allow for its possible (and from this quarter, much-hoped for) revival. I guess somebody made a deal, or came to their senses or something, because the hiatus was soon over. The next nove in the series, Bleeders (2002), found Nameless at the crossroads, indeed. And it could have ended there.
Instead, it marked a turning point in the series.
By the next year’s Spook (2003), Nameless was settling into domesticity, with not just a wife but a child, and preparing for semi-retirement, handing over the day-to-day duties of running a small agency over to his feisty, impulsive young partner, Tamara Corbin, and breaking in a new investigator, taciturn former Seattle cop and widower Jake Runyon.
Since then, the books (and there’s been a new one almost every year since) have slipped into a formula of sorts that might almost be called cozy, were it not for Pronzini’s seemingly endless ability to shake things up, and probe under the skin of his characters. Each book now typically features three separate but often thematically linked cases (one each for Nameless, and one for each of his two employees, Jake and Tamara) and usually at least one personal or moral crisis for at least one of them. Not the lone wolf action-packed adventures of yore, perhaps, but a realistic and revealing (and unapologetically adult) continuation of one man’s journey down the mean streets.
The Nameless series is simply one of the bravest and most gripping voyages detective fiction has to offer — climb on board. Highly and heartily recommended.
Pronzini is something of a one-man publishing machine. He’s written scores of books under various aliases, including the Quincannon series, about a PI in the Old West. And, in case you’re wondering why Nameless and Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone are so palsy, always teaming up, maybe the fact that their respective creators have been married for years may have something to do with it.
- Bill Pronzini has always said that when imagines the Nameless Detective, he sees Bill Pronzini. Which may explain why, after all these years and amidst much speculation, we discovered that his first name is… Bill.
- “Sexy as hell, all right, if you liked your women looking as though theyíd just crawled out of a coffin after a hard night of biting necks. She didnít do much of anything for me, which was a good thing for several reasons. One of them being that I never did like having my neck bitten.”
- “Bill Pronzini is the best at making me laugh. And cry. This is one of my favorites for some funny reason.”
— Terry Lane
- “(The Nameless series is) a stunning and unique achievement in crime fiction”
- “It seems to me that all fictional private eyes are either over or underrated. If we can remember their names, they’re overrated. If we can’t, well, they’re underrated, but how can we say who they are? As soon as we think of them, they cease to fulfill our requirement..
There are, as it happens, two private eyes I can think of very clearly, but I can’t remember their names because I never knew them in the first place. One is the creation of Dashiell Hammett, but he’s not really underrated, because everybody knows him, as The Continental Op. People write doctoral theses about him, for heaven’s sake, and it’s axiomatic that the subject of a doctoral dissertation is never underrated..
But there’s another guy whose name I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. He’s the fellow Bill Pronzini has been writing about for something like a quarter of a century. The man has been the hero of a couple of dozen spare and well-wrought novels, and he’s grown and aged and gone through changes, even as you and I..
Critics refer to him as Nameless. But he’s got a name. He just doesn’t let us know what it is. “I gave my name,” he’ll tell us, coy as can be. If he gave us his name, we’d bandy it about all over the place, and before you knew it, he’d be overrated.”
— Lawrence Block, in the May/June 2000 issue of American Heritage, when asked who The Most Overrated and Underrated Fictional Private Eyes were. By the way, he named his own Matt Scudder as the most overrated P.I.
- The Snatch (1971) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Vanished (1973)
- Undercurrent (1973)
- Blowback (1977)
- Twospot (1978, co-written with Colin Wilcox)
- Labyrinth (1980) | Buy this book
- Hoodwink (1981)
- Scattershot (1982)
- Dragonfire (1982)
- Bindlestiff (1983)
- Quicksilver (1984)
- Nightshades (1984)
- Double (1984)
- Co-written with Marcia Muller; featuring Sharon McCone
- Bones (1985)
- Deadfall (1986)
- Shackles (1988) | Buy this book
- Jackpot (1990)
- Breakdown (1991)
- Quarry (1992)
- Epitaths (1992)
- Demons (1993)
- Hardcase (1995) | Buy this book
- Sentinels (1996)
- Illusions (1997)
- Boobytrap (1998) | Buy this book
- Crazybone (2000) | Buy this book
- Bleeders (2002) | Buy this book
- Spook (2003) | Buy this book
- Nightcrawlers (2005) | Buy this book
- Mourners (2006) | Buy this book
- Savages (2007) | Buy this book | Kindle It!
- Fever (2008) | Buy this book
- Schemers (2009) | Buy this book
- Betrayers (2010) | Buy this book | Kindle It!
- Camouflage (2011) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Hellbox (2012) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Nemesis (2013) | Buy this book…Kindle it!
- Strangers (2014) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Vixen (2015) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Zigzag (2016) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Endgame (2017) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
SHORT STORIES & NOVELLAS
- “It’s a Lousy World” aka “Sometimes There is Justice” (1968 August, AHMM; First Cases)
- “The Snatch” (May 1969, MSMM)
- “A Cold Day in November” (November 1969, AHMM)
- “The Crank” (January 1970, MSMM)
- “Death of a Nobody” (Februaryy 1970, AHMM)
- “The Way the World Spins” (May 1970, AHMM)
- “The Assignment” (February 1972, AHMM; aka “One of Those Cases”)
- “Blowback” (September 1972, Argosy)
- “Majorcan Assignment” (October 1972, MSMM; aka “Sin Island”)
- “The Scales of Justice” (July 1973, AHMM)
- “Private Eye Blues” (July 1975, AHMM)
- “The Private Eye Who Collected Pulps” (February 1979, EQMM; aka “The Pulp Connection”)
- “Thin Air” (May 1979, AHMM; also A Mystery by the Tale)
- “A Nice Easy Job” (November 1979, EQMM)
- “Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?” (January 30, 1980, AHMM)
- “Dead Man’s Slough” (May 21, 1980, AHMM)+
- “A Killing in Xanadu” (1980, Waves Press limited-edition chapbook; also Detectives A-Z)
- “Who’s Calling?” (1982, Shosetsu Shincho; also Casefile, 1983)
- “Booktaker” (1982, Shosetsu Shincho; also Casefile, 1983)
- “The Ghosts of Ragged-Ass Gulch” (1982, Shosetsu Shincho)
- “Quicksilver (1982, Shosetsu Shincho)
- “Cat’s Paw” (1983; also 1996, Spadework)
- “Skeleton, Rattle Your Mouldy Leg” (1984, The Eyes Have It; also 1996, Spadework)
- “Sanctuary” (1985, Graveyard Plots; also Suspicious Characters; also 1996, Spadework; aka “Twenty Miles To Paradise”)
- “Ace in the Hole (1986, Mean Streets; also 1996, Spadework)
- “Incident in a Neighbourhood Tavern” (1988, An Eye for Justice)
- “Something Wrong (1988, Small Felonies; also 1996, Spadework)
- “Cache and Carry” (1988, Small Felonies; with Marcia Muller; featuring Sharon McCone)
- “Here Comes Santa Claus” (1989, Mistletoe Mysteries; also 1996, Spadework)
- “Stakeout” (1990, Justice for Hire; also 1996, Spadework)
- “La Bellezza delle Belleze” (1991, Invitation to Murder)
- “Bedeviled” (1991, Cat Crimes; also 1996, Spadework)
- “Souls Burning” (1991, Dark Crimes; also New Crimes 3; also 1996, Spadework)
- “Kinsmen” ( 1993, Criminal Intent) | Buy the novella | Kindle it!
- “One Night at Delores Park” (April 1995, EQMM; also 1996, Spadework)
- “Home is the Place Where” (November 1995, EQMM; also 1996, Spadework; 1998, Private Eyes)
- “Bomb Scare” (December 1995, EQMM; also 1996, Spadework)
- “Worried Mother Job” (1996, Spadework)
- “Zero Tolerance” (1996, Spadework; also January 1998, EQMM)
- “The Big Bite” (2000, The Shamus Game)
- “Wrong Place, Wrong Time” (2002, Most Wanted)
- “The Winning Ticket” (June 2007, EQMM)
- “Femme” (2013) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- “Who You Been Grapplin’ With?” (December 2014, EQMM)
- Nameless: Shosetsu Shincho (1982)
A Japanese collection of four Nameless novellas
- Casefile (1983) | Kindle it!
- Small Felonies (1988; includes 3 Nameless stories)
- Graveyard Plots (1988; includes 3 Nameless Stories)
- Stacked Deck (1991; seven stories, some featuring Nameless) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Spadework (1996)
- Scenarios: A Nameless Detective Casebook (2003) | Buy this book
- Partners in Crime
An interesting — if dated — interview with Bill Pronzini and his wife. Marcia Muller from 1996, on how they’ve found the write stuff in one another and in their 15-year relationship. Written by David Templeton.
- The Big Stretch
Some of the longest running P.I. series.