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Vixen: A Nameless Detective Novel


Vixen: A Nameless Detective Novel

In 1971, Bill Pronzini wrote a book called THE SNATCH, which he intended as a homage to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op by having his protagonist detective have no name. Almost half a century later and the longest-running detective series is still going strong with its 44th entry, VIXEN.

Getting a new Nameless book (although we learned decades ago that he does have a first name, Bill) is like getting a letter from a friend. Fans love to spend time with Bill, who has aged in real time and now works only one day a week, as well as his detective agency’s operatives: Tamara Corbin, the office computer whiz, and Jake Runyon, the experienced field operative still struggling to put his life together after the cancer death of his wife. Bill is everyman as crime solver.

The basic plot of VIXEN appeared in a small novella called FEMME that Pronzini published in 2012 through Cemetery Dance Publications. I read FEMME when it came out. VIXEN is greatly expanded from the novella, and I enjoyed them both. Bill tells us in the prologue that in almost half a century in law enforcement he has never encountered a real femme fatale, French for “deadly woman”: “Not even close. If you’d told me that one day I would, and that her brand of evil would be like nothing I could have ever imagined, I probably would have laughed and said no way.”

"Long may Bill Pronzini keep Nameless and his agency on the case. I cannot wait for the 45th book."

Then along comes Cory Beckett. Through a bail bondsman, Cory hires Bill’s agency to find her brother, Kenneth, who skipped bond on a charge of robbing a $20,000 necklace from his employer. Pronzini describes Bill’s first meeting with the femme: “But what you noticed first, and remembered most vividly, were her luminous gray-green eyes. They had a powerful magnetic quality; I could feel the pull of them, like being drawn into dark, calm water. It was only when you got to know who and what she was that you realized the calm surface was a lie, that underneath there weren’t only smoldering sexual fires but riptides and whirlpools and hungry darting things with razor-sharp teeth.”

Yikes. Hold on to your wallet. This would have been good advice when Bill and Tamara discover that Cory makes a habit of hooking up with men with money. Jake does his job easily enough and soon tracks down Kenneth, who turns out to be terrified of going back to San Francisco with his sister. For good reason, it develops.

The wild ride is on as Bill seeks the truth and tries to figure out and foil Cory’s game and Jake tries to help Kenneth. Bill visits Cory in her apartment but notes: “Vamp stuff doesn’t work on me; I’ve been around too long, seen too much, and I happen to believe in the sanctity of marriage.” Otherwise, it would be a far different book indeed. But rest assured mystery fans, blood is going to spill and tension build to a horrific climax.

The femme fetale has a long history in literature, daring back to Circe, the mythological Greek goddess of magic. About a century ago, the femme fatale was born in the hardboiled pulps, and James M. Cain wrote about femmes who would later help create film noir in movies like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But as the role of women in society began to change, these ladies used sex, not magic, to ensnarl the male, like a spider catching its prey.

It is interesting to note that in both print and especially movies, controlled by the Production Code, there were limits a century ago on what you could show anybody doing, especially if it involved getting away with murder. In neo-noirs, like the brilliant The Last Seduction in 1994 and 1981’s Body Heat, modern femmes were actually allowed to get over on men and get away with their crimes. And for these liberated women, audiences could not help but root for them. The world had changed.

VIXEN is old school in that Nameless readers expect good to triumph over evil. But that in no way diminished the enjoyment that fans of hardboiled pulp and film noir, like me, will get out of it. Towards the end of this book, Jake, in looking back over his shattered life, gives a classic definition of noir: “Lucky. Two of the luckiest people in the world… Until all the luck ran out.” And when that happens, you are in noir territory. The luck runs out, and great fiction and movies result.

Long may Bill Pronzini keep Nameless and his agency on the case. I cannot wait for the 45th book.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on July 2, 2015

Vixen: A Nameless Detective Novel
by Bill Pronzini

  • Publication Date: June 23, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Forge Books
  • ISBN-10: 0765335689
  • ISBN-13: 9780765335685