Friday, April 12, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Books, Friday, April 12, 2013

 Happy Birthday this week to Bill Pronzini. April 15th.

"Death of a Nobody" by Bill Pronzini was first published in 1970 and was later collected in ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE'S FIFTY YEARS OF CRIME AND SUSPENSE, edited by Linda Landrigan.

You don't find many stories like this one nowadays-where a P.I follows the clues, none of them particularly surprising, to the conclusion of a case. What makes this story work, in fact,  is its ordinariness. This gives the story complete authenticity. That and lovely writing and fine details. And the voice is perfect. If someone wants to learn to write a P.I story, this one could be a model.
A skid row denizen, Nello, comes to the detective to tell him of the recent death of his friend, another skid-row fellow. He is convinced the police will do nothing to solve the crime of a bum. But the P.I., with the help of a cop, follow the trail to a satisfying conclusion.  Thus he proves to Nello that both he and the cops do care. There is no real villain in the piece-it is the sort of crime that has no big payoff other than the satisfaction of a mystery solved.

Ed Gorman


While this fine novel was published in 2006, I think it's appropriate here because while it got its due critically, it deserved a much larger audience.Actuary Jordan Wise tells a joke on himself a third of the way through the novel: (paraphrase) an actuary is somebody who doesn’t have the personality to be an accountant. If you watch many true crime shows, you see a lot of Jordan Wises. People who fall into crime through circumstance rather than those who go looking for it. 

Jordan becomes a criminal only after meeting Annalise, a troubled and very attractive young woman who needs two things badly – sex and money. But in order to get the sex on a regular basis, Jordan must first provide the money. 
He embezzles a half million dollars and flees with Annalise to the Virgin Islands. In this first part of the novel, there’s nice James M. Cainian detail about how Jordan comes alive for the first time in his life. Some of this is due, whether he admits it or not, to the danger of committing a serious crime. But most of it is due to Annalise and his profound sexual awakening. The central section of the book reminds me of one of Maugham’s great South Seas tales – lust, betrayal, shame played out against vast natural beauty and a native society that, thanks to an old sea man named Bone, that Jordan comes to see value in – even if Annalise, her head filled with dreams of Paris and glamor, does not. Old Maugham got one thing right for sure – as Pronzini demonstrates here – a good share of humanity, wherever you find them, are both treacherous and more than slightly insane. There are amazing sections of writing about sea craft and sailing that remind me not of old Travis McGee but of the profoundly more troubled and desperate men of Charles Williams who find purity and peace only in the great and epic truths of the sea. That they may be as crazed and treacherous as everybody else does not seem to bother them unduly. There are also amazing sections (almost diaristic sections) where Jordan tells of us his fears and desires, his failings and his dreams. In places he deals vividly, painfully with his secret terror of not being enough of a man in any sense to hold Annalise. The publisher calls this a novel and so it is. 
Pronzini brings great original width and breadth to the telling of this dark adventure that is both physical and spiritual. He has never written a better novel, the prose here literaryin the best sense, lucid and compelling, fit for both action and introspection. You can’t read a page of this without seeing it in movie terms. The psychologically violent love story played out against a variety of contemporary settings gives the narrative great scope. And in Jordan Wise and Annalise he has created two timeless people. This story could have been set in ancient Egypt or Harlem in 1903 or an LA roller skating disco in 1981. As Faulkner said, neither the human heart nor the human dilemma ever changes.


(Review by Deb)

I came across this odd little book a few years ago when I was working in a junior high school library.  It arrived with a batch of new books for in-processing; the title grabbed me, so I started reading.  Within a few pages, I was both hooked on the story and baffled as to why it was marketed as Young Adult fiction.  I can’t imagine many teenagers getting into the story of a young girl named Ivy, her beloved mother, and their unusual relationship with twin albino pharmacists, Abner and Adolph Rumbaugh.  On the other hand, adult readers looking for something off the beaten path might enjoy this gothic meditation on nature-versus-nurture, extreme love for one’s mother, the Catholic belief system, and the notion of free will all told in the deadpan first-person narration of the aforementioned Ivy.

The story is set in a small Pennsylvania town.  There are few markers as to the time period; the sense of the book is almost early 20th-Century (for some reason, I kept thinking of Booth Tarkington’s Penrod books), so when there are occasional references to phones, radios, interstates, and cars, it comes as a surprise; it’s as if the characters are living in another era entirely from the rest of the world.  Ivy is an isolated young girl who is overly attached to her single mom.  No husband or father is in the picture—or seems to ever have been, although this never bothers Ivy who expresses no curiosity about who or where her father might be.  The only family friends Ivy and her mother have are the Rumbaugh twins who run the local pharmacy and are well-known in the area for their excellent skills as taxidermists.

Ivy’s mother works while Ivy attends a Catholic school with nuns as teachers and a Mother Superior as principal (one more way in which the book seems set in another era, because anyone who has been in a Catholic school in the past few decades knows that very few of them are staffed by nuns anymore).  There are many passages where Ivy meditates the “big questions” that are always part of any faith journey, but appear more codified in the Catholic tradition:  What is sin?  Are we predestined to live a sinful life?  If so, is there any real notion of free will or do we act in accordance with a predetermined pattern?  Ivy is a good student, but she seems apart from the other girls in her class—although she makes some friends, they are mainly of a superficial nature—her emotions are completely wound up in her mother and the Rumbaughs.

In ways that a contemporary reader can’t help but find creepy, Ivy spends all her spare time at the drugstore with the middle-aged twins.  She especially loves the little animals that the twins have stuffed, dressed up, and posed in various tableaux in glass cases (see—I told you it was creepy).  Ivy herself longs to learn the intricacies of taxidermy and the twins are eager to show her.  Soon she too is plying the taxidermist’s trade on squirrels, cats, and other small animals.  These activities are described in a very detailed fashion.  Again, this sounds very gruesome as I’m writing it, but Ivy’s narration is so matter-of-fact, we begin to accept the behavior of Ivy and the twins as normal.

What actually is the love curse of the Rumbaughs?  Well, it’s excessive love for one’s mother—you can’t read this book without thinking of Psycho—and the twins suffer from it.  Their love for their late mother is so extreme that…well, you only have to know about the twins hobby of taxidermy to guess what horrifying secret Ivy uncovers in the basement of the pharmacy one Easter morning.

And yet, because of Ivy’s straightforward style of explaining what has happened, the enormity of what the twins have done seems somehow less horrific.  In fact, it fascinates Ivy, who loves her own living mother with as much devotion as the twins love theirs.  As Ivy ages, she learns the truth about her own relationship to the Rumbaughs and begins to suffer anxiety and panic attacks whenever her mother is out of her sight.  Is she too suffering from the love curse?

To say more would be to truly undermine the enjoyment of this weird little book. Let’s just say that Ivy gets to answer many of the abstract questions she had in Catholic school with a much more concrete set of real-life examples—and leave it at that.

Sergio Angelini, PROOF OF GUILT, Bill Pronzini
Yvette Banek, SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY, Ellery Queen
Joe Barone, THE CLAIRVOYANT COUNTESS, Dorothy Gilman
Les Blatt, BLIND DRIFTS, Clyde B. Clason
Brian Busby, City of Peril, Arthur Stringer
Bill Crider, BARON SINISTER, Joseph Hilton
Martin Edwards, STILL DEAD, Ronald Knox
Curt Evans, ETERNITY RING, Patricia Wentworth
Jerry House, SIX-GUN IN CHEEK, Bill Pronzini
Randy Johnson, THE MARSHALL, Frank Gruber
George Kelley, A FLASH OF GREEN, John D. Macdonald
Margot Kinberg, THE CASE OF THE GILDED FLY. Edmund Crispin 
B.V. Lawson, LOS ALAMOS, Joseph Kanon
Evan Lewis, LOVELY LADY, PITY ME, Roy Huggins
Steve Lewis, Dan Stumpf, THE OUT IS DEATH, Peter Rabe
Todd Mason GRAVEYARD PLOTS by Bill Pronzini (1985); WITCHES BREW (1984) and KILL OR CURE (1985), edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
J. Kingston Pierce/Linda Barnes, LIFE'S WORK, Jonathan Valin
James Reasoner, FANG-TUNG MAGICIAN, H. Beford-Jones
Ron Scheer, THE YOUNGEST WORLD, Robert Dunn
Michael Slind, BLACK WIDOW, Patrick Quentin 
Kerrie Smith, THE 4:50 FROM PADDINGTON, Agatha Christie
Kevin Tipple, THE BOOK OF MURDOCK, Loren D. Estleman
Jim Winter, NEEDFUL THINGS, Stephen King


neer said...

Hi Patti

Here's my contribution for this week's FFB:

Death in Cyprus by M.M. kaye

Charles Gramlich said...

I've enjoyed the Pronzini I've read but haven't read enough.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Although I ran it earlier in the week to coincide with the release of her latest novel, Linda Barnes' report on "Life's Work," by Jonathan Valin, belongs in this week's record of "forgotten books" posts. I hope you'll include it. That piece can be found here:


Todd Mason said...

Slow the sleep-deprived wheel turns. To be born on tax day might well be...well, taxing...

GRAVEYARD PLOTS by Bill Pronzini (1985); WITCHES BREW (1984) and KILL OR CURE (1985), edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

Todd Mason said...

Ron Scheer:

Todd Mason said...

Yvette Banek:

THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY (1933) by Ellery Queen

Anonymous said...

Patti - You are so kind to include me post. Thank you.

Todd Mason said...

That is an important point about little of his work is flashy, when it's at all possible to be matter-of-fact. That works well in grounding his more surreal explorations (usually in collaboration with Barry Malzberg) and really amps up the effect of his suspense fiction...Mike Hammer chained in a basement or waiting to meet a psychopath in the fog is just another damned day at the office (or even in, say, Stephen King's hands, is often just a jumping-off point for insufficiently-honed anguished self-reflection), while what Pronzini tends to do gets the actual sense of menace across far better. The wit helps, too.

My eyes, I blame, for managing to read April 13 as 15.

The Passing Tramp said...

I included Death of a Nobody last year in my Passing Tramp blog review of Pronzini's short stories. It's a straightforward, moving little story.

Today I have a review of an excellent Pronzini-Malzberg collaboration, The Running of Beasts. Definitely off the N?Nameless track!