The Violated by Bill Pronzini (Mystery/Crime Novel, 2017).
To describe Bill Pronzini as both an acclaimed and prolific author would be damning with faint praise. He has published over eighty novels, won three Shamus awards, is a six-time nominee for the Edgar Allen Poe Award, and was hailed a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 2008. And as this very effective new book attests, he’s still going strong.
A smallish city in California, Santa Rita has been plagued by an extremely violent yet elusive serial rapist for four months as the novel opens. An understandably anxious public and a self-servingly ambitious Mayor were already pushing Police Chief Griffin Kells and lead detective Robert Ortiz for a quick solution when their only current suspect turned up dead, shot and sexually mutilated.
Ortiz was sure Martin Torrey, a former sex offender, was their man; Kells had been less certain. But in any case, they lacked enough evidence to hold him. And now, it seemed that someone–one of the victims, somebody connected to them or perhaps some self-styled vigilante–had taken matters of “justice” into their own hands.
For most of the book, it is unclear if Torrey was the rapist. His previous offenses (involving voyeurism) were nonviolent, he served his time and underwent treatment. His wife, the wife’s sister and his brother-in-law all professed to believe in his innocence. Even Ortiz had to admit it was mostly his cop instincts that Torrey was guilty, rather than any solid evidence. And now they were tasked with finding his killer, as well as establishing whether he was the masked rapist or not.
Meanwhile, Mayor Delahunt is itching for an excuse to replace Kells and Ortiz with less-capable, but more politically reliable members of the Force. Delahunt is a splendid example of a politician who is out for himself above all, yet has convinced himself that he is a true servant of the people. As such, he is a somewhat more rounded and believable character than the standard-issue interfering authority figure who muddies the waters in lesser crime books. Oh, yes, he and his followers hamper the investigation without meaning to, by constantly taking rhetorical shots at the cops. But the several chapters he narrates reveal that he’s blinded by his ego and the rationalizations he feeds himself. He really does not think he’s an agent of anything but what’s good and right.
Delahunt is just one of many first person narrators here. In fact, the entire book is told in first-person and almost every important character has his or her say in one or more chapters, as plot developments allow. This is a somewhat unusual technique, but never confusing as each chapter (many quite short and to the point) is limited to the one viewpoint narrator. Pronzini employs this method with expert skill, each character revealing their individual humanity in service to plot, mood and characterization.
As such, those involved come alive as people–some with quite heartbreaking vividness. This includes victims, possible suspects, the news people covering this red-hot story, those involved in the investigation and their loved ones. Pronzini also plays fair with his readers, building suspense without giving away too much or too little. A couple side issues (including what may or may not be a copycat attacker) are introduced, clouding the issue. I won’t spoil it for future readers, but I will say the solution to this string of tragedies feels right when it comes as well.
Bill Pronzini has written a truly impressive number of books. I’ve never encountered a really bad one. Some are ‘merely’ good reads (as if that’s not an achievement in itself). But at his best, he’s pretty darn wonderful–as in this case.