By Bill Pronzini; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
A weather-worn woman with pain-filled eyes eating dinner in San Francisco’s Harmony Café catches the attention of Jim Messenger.
“She was the saddest, loneliest person he’d ever encountered; pure blue, pure lonesome.”
Jim, 37, a certified public accountant, sees himself in her: “an approaching downward spiral in his own existence. More than just a midlife crisis; a rest-of-his-life crisis, in which he descended gradually into a void of utter passivity.”
He becomes obsessed. She refuses to talk to him when he asks if he can share her table one busy night. He follows her home on another evening learning that she calls herself Janet Mitchell.
Three months after he first notices her, she doesn’t show up at the cafe. After a week, Jim goes to her apartment building and sees that her name has been removed from the mail boxes. He rings the manager’s bell. The manager tells him Janet Mitchell killed herself.
But why is the question that haunts Jim.
He goes to the coroner’s office to ask questions and then to the police inspector investigating the case. He learns her name is fake. She has no known next-of-kin. She had $14,000 in cash in a safe deposit box.
Unable to let her go, Jim pays the landlady to look at Miss Lonesome’s belongings. He finds western-styled clothes, a bedraggled stuffed panda bear and a book labeled as the property of the Beulah library. Several hours at the library tell him that Beulah is in Nevada.
Against all rationality, he decides to check out Beulah. He gets his boss to agree to taking his vacation early and sets out across the desert to Beulah.
There he finds a town run by John T. Roebuck, owner of the local casino, and his henchmen. The local librarian tells him that the last person to have checked out the book he found in Miss Lonesome’s suitcase was Anna Roebuck. When an eavesdropping library patrons hears that Anna committed suicide in San Francisco, she bursts out laughing.
Gossip runs through Beulah as fast as a gasoline-fed grass fire. While everyone he meets wants to know more about Anna’s life in San Francisco, they are equally eager to tell him that they believe Anna shot her philandering husband Dave Roebuck, smashed her daughter Tess’s head in with a rock, dressed her in her Sunday best and put her down a well. Anna was never charged, but everyone in town just knows she was the only one who could have done it.
Jim knows that the pain-riddled woman he observed in San Francisco could not have.
“There were too many questions, too many puzzling elements; they presented the same sort of challenge as a knotty tax problem, stimulated his desire to work toward a solution, create order out of a certain amount of chaos. Facts were like numbers—shift them around, add and subtract, multiply and divide, try different equations, and sooner or later you could be certain you had the correct answer.”
In the best tradition of western classics, this is a story of an ordinary man standing up against public opinion and seemingly unbeatable power and corruption to seek the truth and see justice done.
“Beulah’s closets were full of secrets. More, it seemed, than in most small towns; uglier ones, too. And the more you shook the closet doors, the louder the skeletons would rattle.”
If you’re patient with a slow and bleak beginning, you’ll be rewarded with a startling story with plenty of twists. While John T. Roebuck and his cheating brother are two-dimensional, Jim Messenger, Anna and her sister Dacy Burgess are not.
The staid, rote Jim comes alive in the stark, silent landscape of the Mojave Desert. What begins in oppressive loneliness and sorrow is transformed, offering the hope of new beginnings.
Well-written and well-plotted, this is a rewarding read.
The Author: Bill Pronzini (1943 – )
William (Bill) John Pronzini is a writer of detective fiction and an anthologist focusing on mystery, western and science fiction stories. He is perhaps best known for his San Francisco-based Nameless Detective, featured in more than 40 books from the early 1970s into the 2000s.
He has also written and published more than 300 short stories. One short story collection, CARPENTER ND QUINCANNON, PROFESSIONAL DETECTIVE SERVICES, is set in the 1890s and focuses on Sabina Carpenter, the widow of a Pinkerton detective who works in her husband’s profession.
His first novel, THE STALKER, was nominated for the 1972 Edgar Award in the “Best First Mystery Novel” category.
He married his third wife, mystery writer Marcia Muller, in 1992. They have collaborated on several novels and anthologies.
Among his many awards is the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, presented in 2008—a distinction he shares with his wife, crime novelist Marcia Muller, the 2005 Grand Master recipient. The couple lives in Northern California.