In earlier decades, Russell Dancer was a well-known pulp writer. Today (i.e. around 1980 or so) he’s barely getting by, writing pseudonymous action novels when he’s not in a drunken stupor. When he invites the Nameless Detective* to a pulp convention, it’s not just because he knows Nameless collects the old magazines; someone has accused Dancer of plagiarism and threatened him with extortion, and he wants the sleuth to find out who. Things get more complicated as Nameless starts to make inquiries, and soon enough one of the convention guests is found murdered in a room locked from the inside. Dancer, drunk and unconscious, is also in the room, so there’s no mystery if he’s the killer, but if he isn’t…
And I haven’t even got to the second impossible murder.
The Nameless Detective mysteries are a mixed bag for me. Nameless himself is a character squarely in the tradition of other private eyes whose cases are told in the first person, and his first few recorded cases have a lot more in common with Chandler or Ross Macdonald than with Christie or Carr. But Pronzini had a mind for constructing fair-play puzzles, and by the time he wrote Hoodwink (seventh in a series that would eventually total 46 books), Nameless was getting to solve some of them. The series would continue to be unpredictable as to whether the new one was going to be a deductive puzzle or something else. Not surprisingly, I prefer the books of the former type.
And this is a really good one. The solution to the first locked room is worthy of John Dickson Carr; as in The Judas Window, it seems the guy who was locked in with the victim has to be guilty, but the actual solution is quite simple and clever. If the answer to the second impossibility isn’t quite in that category, it’s at least as good as what you’d find in an average Dr. Sam story. And the rest of the story is a lot of fun to read, both as a love letter to the pulp era and as a few hours spent with a colorful group of suspects. I don’t know about the other writer characters, but Dancer is supposedly based on a real-life pulp writer named Gil Brewer, who eventually drank himself to death. Pronzini wrote an article about Brewer that’s available here.
As the Nameless series goes on, the character evolves and his life goes through the same kinds of phases as a real person’s, but you don’t have to read them in order to understand what’s going on. If he’s new to you, this would be a good one to start with.
*He has a name in-universe, but the readers are never told what it is. (Well, he does get called “Bill” in one book… and I suspect if he had a last name, it would be Pronzini. Still, he’ll always be known to the fans as the Nameless Detective.)