Bill Pronzini is a skilled storyteller and my favorite among a group of able writers of light, straight, credible detective fiction which includes his wife Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton. Although sometimes weak on plot and veering at times into melodramatic action, his books' characterizations, dialogue, descriptions of the various parts of California, attention to detail, deadpan humor, and smooth, easy writing style most always make them a pleasure to read. His "Nameless Detective" is low-key, competent, and serious-minded, part slob and part romantic, despite being beaten down by reality (Pronzini regularly has fun with the character by humbling him with embarrassing or bad-luck situations and tests it by putting him through the ringer of traumatic experiences). Thanks to Amazon, I was able to add "Sentinels" to my collection.
Yet, I have to agree with the overall negative reviews of "Sentinels." The book is weak. It is not as bad as Pronzini's unreadable "Beyond the Grave," a collaboration with his wife ("Double" was a more conventional but better joint effort). There are some bright spots in "Sentinels," like the introduction of Nameless's sharp, sassy assistant, Tamara Corbin. She is well-drawn and well-used here (though she fades into the woodwork in the next book of the series). There are glimpses of narration, legwork, and interactions that are reminiscent of Pronzini's better work. There is also a funny scene in which Nameless is treated to his wife's girlfriend's discourse on "The Holy Sexual Communion," "New Age tantra," a "yoni puppet," and "Once Andrew and I reached mutual harmony in our energy bodies, he illuminated my valley of bliss with his wand of light and we began the slow ascent to pure ecstasy."
But such elements are a mere fringe digression from the book's grim, shallow story of the search for a college girl and her new boyfriend, both missing after their car broke down in small-town far-northern California on their way back to the San Francisco area from a trip. Also beside the point are scattered references to, and a shocking development about, Nameless's ex-friend/partner Eberhardt, which was the springboard to the next novel, Illusions, another recipient of unfavorable reviews here.
"Sentinels" has two main problems. The first is a thin plot. The other reviews are correct that it has few surprises and goes nowhere. The best indication of this is that the book is drawn out to make up for it. Unusual for the Nameless books and unforgivable for a crime story, the book dumbs down the detective to delay revelation of a key fact (here about the boyfriend). Based on blatant clues, including a white supremacy poster in the rural market, which should have put the subject front and center in Nameless's mind, the fact in question is obvious to the reader long before Nameless tumbles to it. As late as page 81, he is saying, "I don't know anything about Rob Brompton or how Allison got involved with him. I'm blundering around in the dark here." By page 90, it is still only sinking in: "Now that I knew, certain things that people had said to me on Tuesday - some subtle, some not so subtle - took on significance." As any reader of the series knows, Nameless is far smarter and more perceptive than that. Beyond its failings as a detective story, I also agree with the other reviews that the book does not bring any particular originality, depth, or insight to its treatment of the serious social issue that it chooses to make the focus of the story.
The second main problem with "Sentinels" is the lack of depth to the characterizations and to the descriptions of place, which Pronzini usually does so well. The point is well made by the other reviews. I would only add some quotes to help capture the book's summary, one-dimensional tone and approach: "Creekside, California, population 112" -- "I didn't care much for this little pimple on the backside of nowhere. In fact, I was beginning to detest it."; "There was no way I would spend this night, or any more nights, in Creekside. I drove back through it in a hurry, out to the highway, and then straight down to Susanville to a Best Western I'd noticed on the outskirts."; "Creekside at five-thirty on a Sunday morning was a ghost town - a place where there were whispers and twitches of life, but a dying place just the same."; "And nobody would know I was back in this miserable little hamlet until I wanted them to know it."; "I had no stomach for making my last call of the day from this ugly little village with its ugly little people."; "I was also fed up with this part of the state; I couldn't talk myself into spending another night in the Corner."