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3 november 2014

After his wife Kerry disappears, the surnameless narrator of Bill Pronzini's Hellbox is

plagued … by a feeling that Kerry and I must be the victims of some monstrous, long-term cosmic conspiracy. … How else to explain that both of us now, husband and wife, had been subjected to separate kinds of kidnap horror in the same general part of the state? (122)
Well, readers can explain. Bill and Kerry, you are victims of a series thriller writer. He must continue to subject you, yours, and everybody you know and love, to continual kidnappings, aggravated assaults, near-rapes, torture, seclusion in various manner of dungeons, high-speed chases, and other types of panic-inducing endangerment, for the duration of your fictional existence. It's a rough life but that's the price of prose immortality.

In another of the topoi sometimes uttered by people who don't know they're in a crime novel, a sheriff's deputy in that same deadly part of California asserts that

Green Valley is a quiet place. Low crime rate. Very few assaults agaist women, and none against a nonlocal as far back as I can remember. (82)
Which isn't far, since he can't remember the hideous abduction of the very private eye he's talking to just a few books ago. But no matter. The milieu and the plot of a good kidnapping novel demand a sleepy valley where the cops are slow to intervene.

And a good kidnapping novel, Hellbox certainly is. At times I was sure we had lost Kerry Wade. (She has a surname, even if her husband does not.) Pronzini typically tells stories from different perspectives, mostly those of his detective-agency team. Here he starts instead with the kidnapper, an asshole named Pete Balfour. No really, the guy is a total asshole, and he's angry at his world because everybody in it knows he's an asshole. So he just doubles down on his nature by embarking on a crime spree that has no other purpose than hurting the people who pegged him to begin with.

Balfour is so noxious that you almost lose sympathy for the author who creates him, though you don't gain any for Balfour himself. Above all, he's been an abusive spouse, the character note that forfeits any shred of readerly empathy. (By chance, I'm reading Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit slowly while I plow through bunches of shorter books, and there too, Dickens puts one of his principal characters, Jonas Chuzzlewit, beyond the pale by making him a wife-beater.) When Balfour adds murder and kidnapping to his repertoire, you're rooting for the good guys, despite the way the author and everybody else has set the asshole up.

Like Karin Fossum in her similarly multiple-voiced Krimis, Pronzini shows us just enough from perspectives of pursuers, victim, and pursued to keep us guessing as to the outcome. Hellbox is a clever suspense novel that serves its diverting purpose and, at ~290 pages, does not overstay its welcome.

Pronzini, Bill. Hellbox. New York: Forge [Tom Doherty], 2012.