Mystery hews to tradition with deliciously devastating effect
Walker & Company, $8.95
Review by Steve Merrill
September 1, 1999
(CNN) -- American mystery novels tend to follow the model established by such early practitioners as Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. It's a tried-and-true formula: moody atmospheres, male leads spitting cynical observations about human nature, and the obligatory femme fatale, the seductress who lures our detective hero into both investigative and sexual dead ends. The popularity of the form is well established, and authors depart from it at their peril. It takes a certain daring, and a lot of talent, to play within the accepted rules and still create a unique and compelling story. Happily, Bill Pronzini possesses the necessary credentials, and his recent effort, "Blue Lonesome," expertly navigates the terrain between appropriate respect for the old masters and confidence in his own formidable abilities.
There are no overtly dangerous women in "Blue Lonesome," and little of the careless cynicism that infected Chandler's and Spillane's mystery detectives. Pronzini's leading man is Jim Messenger, a divorced CPA living in San Francisco. At age 37, Messenger is a creature of habit, given to long hours at work and dinners alone at his neighborhood cafe. The end of his first and only marriage, 17 years ago, has drained him of passion and snagged him in a midlife rut of boredom and loneliness. He worries that he is at an unseen crossroads, a critical point in his life that, once passed, will forever find him companionless and desperate.
This uncharacteristically limp, stagnant portrait of the future detective is Pronzini's daring setup. By convention, the protagonist should be at least hard-edged: Clearly, something must enter Jim Messenger's life and shake it violently, remake him in the mold of the hero. In American mysteries, only women and corpses can have such an effect.
Pronzini doesn't let us down. While eating at the Harmony Café one night, Messenger is transfixed by a woman at an adjacent table: "She was the saddest, loneliest person he had ever encountered…The naked loneliness shocked him at first. He could not take his eyes off her." She is a kindred soul, and Messenger becomes obsessed with her, putting himself in places he knows she will be, even following her. A few days later she is dead, having come to a bloody end in her bathtub, the victim of an apparent suicide.
The untimely death of the anonymous woman Messenger had nicknamed Blue Lonesome only sharpens his desperate desire to know her story and unravel the tale of her awful aloneness. He finally bribes a landlord to look through her personal effects, but a library book from Beulah, Nevada, is his only lead. Under a powerful spell he does not fully understand, he drops work for two weeks, packs his bags and strikes out for this distant, rural outpost.
Here Pronzini's writing and the story as a whole take on a new edge. A palpable sense of the hardscrabble desert town of Beulah, baking under the big skies of the West, is evoked in gorgeous passages. And as Messenger begins to question the locals about the unknown suicide victim, Pronzini paints a devastating picture of small-town insularity, of terrible secrets hushed up in the name of dumb loyalty to one's locality. Jim Messenger is an outsider, a city boy with too many questions, and he finds himself on the wrong side of an escalating series of threats. Challenged, Messenger lives up to the implications of his name, pushing the townspeople towards the first tentative admissions, and finally to shocking and unwanted revelations.
In "Blue Lonesome," geography and psychology shade into one another. The desolate terrain of Beulah, the mournful night winds, the poisonous desert snakes all are used to great effect by Pronzini. In these spare, haunted surroundings, the reader's sense of the dangerous, lonely truths buried in human lives is deepened, and the unconscious desire to hide unpleasant realities from ourselves and others is disconcertingly reflected back at us. "Blue Lonesome" is not a breezy summer read that's soon forgotten; it's a moody study of broken lives and redemption, a beautifully evocative tale that lingers in the mind.
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