, , , , , , , , ,

Review: The Bags of Tricks Affair, by Bill Pronzini
Forge, 2018. 254 pp. $26

Grass Valley, Nevada, isn’t the loosest mining town John Quincannon has ever seen, but it has its share of conmen, quick-tempered fortune-hunters, and card sharps, as befits any Western burg of the 1870s. But John and his partner, Sabina Carpenter, of the Professional Detective Services agency of San Francisco, are on hand to thwart the latest con game about to happen, and they plan on a successful conclusion, bringing their firm more business. The key seems to be a high-stakes game of five-card stud:

The Saint Louis Rose cut a slimmer and far gaudier figure. Too gaudy by half, in Quincannon’s judgment. She wore a fancy sateen dress of bright green, fashioned below across the bosom and high at the knee so that a great deal — a great deal, indeed — of creamy skin was exposed. A red wig done in ringlets, a little too much rouge and powder, false eyelashes the size of a daddy longlegs, and mouth painted the same rose color as the wig completed her image. She laughed often and too loud and was shamelessly flirtatious with the kibitzers.

However, before John and Sabina can expose the grifters, a murder takes place, to which Sabina is the only witness in an otherwise crowded room. A third party who has an interest in the upcoming murder trial has all but told her she’d do well to forget about testifying. But no one scares Sabina Carpenter. Very little eludes her, either, which is why she’s a formidable witness. John wishes she took the threat more seriously, and not just because he’s sweet on her. Former Pinkerton and first-rate detective she may be, and more than able to take care of herself in a tight spot, but John knows a ruthless bad guy when he sees one, and that’s who she’s up against.

Eadweard Muybridge’s panorama of San Francisco, taken from the Mark Hopkins mansion, Nob Hill, 1878 (courtesy Collection of the Society of California Pioneers, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Meanwhile, though, duty calls, and once the detectives return to San Francisco, each pursues a separate case. The plot zips along faster than the Southern Pacific Railroad, but much more reliably, subject to no delays. Pronzini didn’t get to be a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America for nothing, and he connects his stories with ingenuity and economy, wasting no words, yet setting the scene so that you see it vividly. He also gives you all the clues and puts you in the role of Dr. Watson, as you try to figure out how things happen (the who is less mysterious, sometimes because the narrative tells you, and once because there’s really no other choice). Yet the how is invariably marvelous and unexpected, and the manner in which our hero and heroine put their puzzles together recalls Holmes at his lightning best — especially Sabina, who’s the better detective. More intriguing yet, these mysteries are of the locked-room variety, so it’s pretty special to find two of those in the same narrative.

Their relationship is my favorite part, though. They work together, but don’t let that fool you; they compete as well, and John pretends to understand Sabina’s conclusions before he actually does. He’s quick to catch on, but she teases him about it afterward. He’s more impetuous than she, quicker to anger, but his sense of honor forbids him to ask for more money in fees when he might get it. She has no scruples about that, which makes her less of a pushover in business dealings, precisely what the male clients don’t expect — and, perhaps, the reader.

As for any hint of romance between the pair, John keeps looking for it, and his occasionally flirtatious banter annoys her, as well it should. Over their years in partnership, she’s grown fonder of him, but she keeps her distance. Not only is she unsure of her feelings for him, she’s holding on to the memory of her husband, dead five years. So during the course of The Bags of Tricks Affair, sexual tension percolates under the surface, increased by the secrets that each withholds from the other, for professional and personal reasons. Consequently, as they set about solving the criminal mysteries before them, they attempt to decipher one another. The mixture makes for an entertaining, fast-paced narrative, and I wish I’d discovered Quincannon and Carpenter before now.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.