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Onyx reviews: Spook by Bill Pronzini

In book after book, Bill Pronzini neglected to give his detective protagonist a name. Other characters simply started talking to him. After all, how often do people use each other's names? Over the course of nearly thirty novels, this nameless detective gradually became known as, well, "Nameless Detective." In the tradition of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, Nameless is identified only by what he does.

Pronzini has said in interviews that he identifies strongly with Nameless, so it should come as no surprise that when the author finally decided to christen his protagonist, he calls him Bill. No last name, but he's no longer completely anonymous. Bill/Nameless has aged with his author and he occasionally interacts with another San Francisco detective, Sharon McCone, who happens to be the fictional creation of Pronzini's wife.

One reason Bill Detective gets a name is that he's no longer a lone wolf. His detective agency has expanded. Getting on in years—he's sixty-one—Nameless has promoted his young assistant, Tamara, to full partner, and the duo are in the process of hiring an additional operative when Spook opens.

They settle on Jake Runyon, a former cop who moved to San Francisco from Seattle after his second wife died of cancer. He has family issues he wants to resolve in Seattle and he needs a job. Nameless and Tamara know very little of his situation beyond what they learn from a background check and Runyon is close-mouthed about his personal life.

Runyon is eager to work, so Nameless and Tamara assign him the task of identifying Spook, a homeless man murdered in the doorway of a film production company. They call him Spook because he talked to unseen people. The people at Visuals, Inc. had befriended the man—"he didn't have a mean bone in his body"—and that he should die anonymously within a week of Christmas nags at them. They don't hire Nameless and his team to solve the murder; they just want to know who he was.

Runyon proves his mettle by quickly turning up clues the police overlooked. One lead sets him on the path of another homeless man known as Big Dog, a recent and menacing arrival in the neighborhood.

Tamara, meanwhile, is trying to work things out with her long-time cellist boyfriend, Horace. He wants her to marry him and move to Philadelphia, where he has been offered a position with the symphony. Her mood swings ("mood leaps," Nameless calls them) have Nameless watching his step around his new partner.

Like Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder, Nameless has developed connections with society. Once a loner, he's now married and they have adopted a young girl whose parents were murdered. He has a family, he's getting on in years, and he's slowly turning the reins of his business over to others. He may be nameless, but he's a familiar character undergoing familiar life transitions.

Runyon does most of the legwork on the Spook case while Nameless handles a less energetic investigation for Sharon McCone. The sparse clues lead Runyon to a decades-old unsolved murder that still has someone angry that justice went unserved. The story culminates in Nameless' squalid office when twenty years of pent-up anger explodes into a dangerous hostage situation. Nameless may be winding down, but when the crisis comes, he and his new team have to work together if they're going to survive to return for another adventure.

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