Review: ‘Femme’ by Bill Pronzini

FemmeBill Pronzini’s Femme is the latest pitch-black entry in his Nameless Detective series, a series that encompasses more than 30 books and spans over 40 years. This is only my second encounter with Nameless (the first being Kinsmen, which Cemetery Dance released simultaneously with Femme earlier this year), but the one-two punch of these releases is enough to send me scrounging for the rest of the books.

The “Nameless Detective” moniker comes from the fact that Pronzini never refers to the character by name. I don’t know how or why Pronzini made this decision, but it works because the author hasn’t allowed it to become a gimmick that overshadows the story. He doesn’t get cute in hiding the name, doesn’t cover over it with a black line or anything like that. It just doesn’t get mentioned to us, even when given to other characters in the story. Regardless, I’ve already got a strong sense of who Nameless is after reading only a couple of his adventures.

In Femme, Nameless becomes embroiled with a woman named Cory Beckett through what seems on its surface to be a simple bail jumping case. Nameless is retained to track down Cory’s brother, Kenneth, who’s taken to the hills to avoid robbery charges. In their initial meeting, Cory is sugar and spice and everything nice, but her demeanor proves to be a thin veneer covering an evil that stuns Nameless with its completeness and ferocity.

Working alongside Nameless is Jake Runyon, an associate often tasked with the tedious legwork of the agency’s cases. In between the interrogations, car chases and shootouts, there’s usually copious amounts of doorbell ringing and phone calls – work that Runyon enjoys and even thrives on. It’s Runyon who first realizes Kenneth’s predicament isn’t entirely what it seems, and it’s his tentative relationship with the hapless young man that pulls him (and Nameless) deeper into Cory Beckett’s madness.

Cory is a young woman of insatiable appetites – for money, yes, but also for power. She thrives on manipulation and deception, and she’s absolutely fearless in the way she’ll throw her body at anyone she thinks she can use to advance her own objectives.

Pronzini’s prose, honed over a career that’s closing in on 50 years, is as streamlined as any you’re likely to find. Femme is an effortless read, pure storytelling that’s as clean and uncluttered as a mountain stream. Clocking in at a lean 175 pages (a page count boosted by the smaller design and format of the book), Femme delivers a compelling story punctuated with subtle character work that brings its characters to vivid life. I hope Cemetery Dance continues to bring us more of the Nameless Detective, and I look forward to tracking down the rest of the series in the meantime.

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