Friday, February 3, 2012
The Booktaker - Bill Pronzini
Story: The Booktaker
Author: Bill Pronzini
Source: Casefile, Locked Room Puzzles.
Story Number: 34
This story was my introduction to the world of Nameless when I read it as part of the locked room anthology. Also, it has two of my favorite themes – an impossible crime and a bookshop setting for the crime!
John Rothman is the owner of the largest second-hand bookstore in San Francisco, a book store which deals in rare and antiquarian books, maps, etchings and prints. Over a period of time, there has been a series of thefts from the antiquarian room – first it was restricted to the books and more recently it has been the priceless maps. Rothman suspects the thief to be one of the 4 employees in the bookshop because of the nature of the theft: only 2 people have the key to the antiquarian room, the theft takes places usually in the afternoon when Rothman is away for lunch, there is a sensor alarm system near the cashier which is being manned by his most experienced and trustworthy employer and hence no outsider could have stolen them, each employee is made to pass the sensor while leaving for the day and only then the alarm is switched off by Rothman.
Rothman comes to Nameless as Nameless is a customer who is in the habit of buying pulps from him. He hires him to identify the culprit and more importantly identify the way in which the theft is being carried out so that he can taken precautions against such means. Nameless checks the background history and credit scores for each of the 4 employees, he questions the neighbors regarding the behavior of each individual but nothing worthwhile turns up. He then goes undercover as an employee of the bookshop with the name of Jim Marlowe (yes, as a tribute to Chandler) and keeps an eye on the proceedings. On the second day of his work, another very rare map is stolen. Every employee is searched, each is made to walk past the sensor but no alarm is set off and the whole bookshop is searched by Rothman and the private eye but the map remains elusive.
It takes a casual remark from Marlowe’s girlfriend to enlighten him about the technique being used for the theft, there is also a murder attempt which Nameless and his girlfriend has to thwart before he can reveal the solution to the mystery which is indeed fairly clued. The description about the bookshop, books and various pulp authors in addition to the puzzle plot makes it a highly satisfying and entertaining detective story.