Friday, May 13, 2016

FFB: NIGHT FREIGHT by Bill Pronzini (Leisure Books 2000)

Bill Pronzini is another writer I've been reading for nearly all my literate life...I've reviewed some of his books as we've gone along here, mostly as an editor, since he's been impressively prolific and consistently good to brilliant in that capacity as well as in being a writer and critic/historian since starting out professionally with a sale to Shell Scott Mystery Magazine in 1966, of a story he disparages as merely a bad pastiche of Hemingway, and makes a point of Not including in this volume ("You Don't Know What It's Like" and no, I don't, and apparently won't till I find that 11/66 Shell Scott issue). But his second published story, in SSMM's more durable stablemate Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine in 1967, is the title story for this collection, a story he introduces with a mixture of diffidence and pride, wondering in his headnote to the story if he should rewrite it for inclusion here, as he'd updated it for inclusion in anthology, and deciding that its "rough edges" add to its vigor (Bill Crider is among those who approve of the No Tamper/No Update policy for good writers looking back at their early work). Pronzini's early stories were among the standouts of the Harold Masur and Robert Arthur Alfred Hitchcock Presents: anthologies I read when very young, and the first back issues of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine I picked up around the same time (1974), first from the public library (ah, a public library that subscribed to and circulated fiction magazines; I cue Crider again: "I miss the old days"). Through one or more of these venues, I first read "The Pattern," which Pronzini feels might be overrated among his work; I'm fonder of it than he.

Among what's notable about Pronzini's work is how transparent his style usually is; he rarely goes out of his way to draw attention to the way he's relating his narrative, which is almost always in the most straightforward and lucid prose he can offer; his protagonists usually have sharp observations about what goes on around them, but only rarely do they get to expound on the nature of life or otherwise make a pitch for a philosophical outlook in the course of whatever relatively tense business they're about in their stories. He does have his fun, including such memorable comic work as "Another Burnt-Out Case" (Fantastic, October 1978, in collaboration with one of his frequent partners, Barry  Malzberg); his most sustained set of work is about the not-really Nameless Detective, who eventually finds himself, in the late works of the series, addressed as "Bill"...but that bit of self-referential detail took a while to emerge (amusingly, he and his wife, writer Marcia Muller, have patterned their most prominent characters after themselves in many ways, and have enjoyed collaborating on stories where those characters interact). 

The  stories in this volume, packaged in the Leisure horror line (Leisure being one of the last paperback houses to maintain a horror line, and seeking to gain a bit of attention thus, even to the extent of offering a book club subscription service) are an interesting mix, not shrinking from collecting again some of Pronzini's most brilliant work, such as "Strangers in the Fog," even when they'd appeared in one of his too-infrequent previous collections (in that case, his first, Graveyard Plots from 1985); while it's at least as much a collection of suspense stories with no supernatural horror content, and leads off with one of the few stories of his own Pronzini is willing to allow is a hardboiled crime fiction ("Stacked Deck," a short novella from The New Black Mask, 1987), and as a collection was put up for the Horror Writers of America Stoker Award (this year's about to be awarded this weekend as I write). I was surprised at how many of these stories I'd managed to miss, one way or another, over the years before picking this up...Pronzini's work has been too often, if not taken for granted, at least been issued by houses that have had some tough times staying afloat...Leisure is a mere shadow of an imprint now, having been a marginal firm throughout its decades, many of his Nameless novels saw their first paperback editions from the quickly-doomed Paperjacks line, etc....and while it's not been difficult in the online era to find his work, he hasn't been as prominently published, nor as recipient of awards as he might be, over the course of his career. (He mentions having been on the jury that considered his "Strangers in the Fog" for the Edgar Award for best short story of its year, and feeling he had to vote for its most prominent rival, denying himself an Edgar...an award he wouldn't receive for some time later, a few years after the first publication of this book.) This, of course, hasn't stopped sophisticated readers of crime, western or his other fields of fiction from seeking his work out...and, of course, it shouldn't stop you, either. This volume, and Graveyard Plots, and The Best Western Stories of Bill Pronzini collection, among others, await you, particularly if you're mostly familiar with his Nameless stories or not at all, and I recommend you take them up sooner rather than later.

From ISFDB:

  • Publication: Night Freight
  • Author: Bill Pronzini
  • Year: 2000-05-00
  • ISBN: 0-8439-4706-3 [978-0-8439-4706-9]
  • Publisher: Leisure Books
  • Price: $5.50
  • Pages: 345

Please see Patti Abbott's blog for more of today's books, and I'll be gathering the links for the next two Fridays...please don't hesitate to let me know what I'll foolishly overlook in the course of compilation!


6 comments:

Bill Crider said...

A truly underrated writer and editor. He deserves a lot more attention and recognition.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

When I was a teen it was Hoch and Pronzini that usually made me want to buy - and I don;t have this one,s o off I go to a non-Amazon company to find one - as ever, you make it sound much too good to miss. Thanks Todd.

Todd Mason said...

I agree, Bill. Not he alone, of course, but definitely he as well.

Sergio, it looks as if all his collections have e-books if you're game for those, and, of course, most of them have non-virtual existence, at least, as well.

Thanks, guys.

Mathew Paust said...

I'm a fairly recent fan of Pronzini and Muller, Todd, and I agree with your assessment of their unadorned, straight-ahead style. I'll keep an eye out for this collection.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

PS just to let you know, my copy is now on its way (apparently)

Todd Mason said...

I doubt either of you will be disappointed, Matt or Sergio...