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4 january 2012

Camouflage is another sharp, exciting entry in the Nameless series of detective novels by Bill Pronzini. As usual, our heroes – Tamara, Jake, Alex, and the Nameless One – are involved in a couple of parallel investigations that turn out to be way more deadly than the usual skip-trace or insurance-fraud case. The first initially looks like it will take a couple of hours: find an ex-wife and serve some papers on her. The second may take a lifetime: rescue Jake's girlfriend Bryn's son from an abusive potential stepmother, and bring him back to mental health again.

Though of course the first case is infinitely more complicated than it first appears. Private investigation in novels always is. Fictional PIs gripe about the endless hours they put in doing boring record-searching or mindless surveillance, but before you know it they are probing into depths of human evil that would make Hannibal Lecter queasy.

Part of the fun, and insight, of detective series is to use the office as a miscellaneous, shifting set of glimpses of the human condition. In Camouflage we see greed, excessive piety, presumption, anger, mental illness, gluttony, probity, fear, and several other aspects of humanity, all tinged with a certain urgency and plenty of drama. We see dogs as bad as their evil owners and happy people with happy pets, as animals become mirrors for the best and worst in us.

The title theme of the novel emerges more in its trace-the-ex plot than in its child-abuse plot. The ex-wife is hard to find because her identity has been stolen. Identity theft, Nameless explains, is usually a matter of charging a few tanks of gas or at worst, cleaning out a bank account. In Camouflage it amounts to sucking the life out of human prey in ways that recall two great current pop-culture obsessions, vampires and zombies. What won't people do in the course of draining the life out of others?

Pronzini, Bill. Camouflage. New York: Forge [Tom Doherty], 2011.