by Robert B. Parker
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Buy it online
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
I admit to ambivalence when I sit down with new entries in Parker's long-running and best-selling Spenser series. I so want to be pleased but fear I shall be disappointed, instead.
I remember fondly the early Spenser novels, from The Godwulf Manuscript (1974) through Early Autumn (1981). They introduced the often violent realm of this single-monikered, poetry-spouting Boston private eye with a mouth full of wisecracks and a head overflowing with inventive recipes, a character who appeared to be following Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer into literary immortality. Then came A Catskill Eagle (1985), which found Spenser's longtime lover, psychiatrist Susan Silverman, off with another man and the detective sniffing up her trail like an Alpha dog in heat, emptying as many gunbarrels as he needed to win her back. He eventually found Susan... yet seemed to lose something of himself in the process -- an energy, a believable darkness peculiar to traditional loner detectives, something inchoate and essential.
The succeeding books have never quite measured up, though a few -- including last year's Small Vices -- came close. Arguably Parker's best work in the last 13 years was a non-Spenser novel: Poodle Springs, his completion of a Marlowe story that Raymond Chandler had only begun before his death in 1959. The result was unexpected, penned in a lighter-than-normal tone, making good use of its period setting. Poodle Springs reminded readers that this author was capable of doing better than he had lately, and incidentally pointed up just how formulaic and tedious the Spenser tales had become, even as they continued to garner critical praise.
Like most of its predecessors, Sudden Mischief has promising ingredients. Here, Susan asks Spenser to help her long-absent ex-husband, an ostensibly successful businessman and former jock named Brad Sterling, skate out from under sexual harassment charges that stem from his work on a major charity fund-raiser. The detective is leery ("This thing showed every sign of not working out well for me"), but takes on the case nonetheless. He quickly realizes there's more to it than he'd imagined. Or than Sterling wanted him to know.
Seems that Susan's ex isn't as solvent as he pretends, and his real trouble doesn't stem from a sexual harassment suit (which boasts of an even flimsier foundation than Paula Jones'), but from Sterling's misuse of the recent fund-raising campaign to launder mobster money. As Spenser learns more, Sterling disappears and bodies begin turning up in his wake, including the corpse of another of his ex-spouses. It's up to the PI, together with his ad hoc partner Hawk, to sort out this mess, while he simultaneously strives to help Susan come to terms with the insecurities that drove her first into Sterling's arms and finally into Spenser's.
Even 25 books in, the Spenser series still charms with its well-evolved continuing figures and its crackling repartee. True, the detective has changed a bit over the decades, but that's to be expected. He no longer spends so many hours exercising (which might be attributed to the fact that, were it not for the age-retarding magic of fiction, he should be 61 by now). And when did Spenser last demonstrate the full array of gourmet talents that used to separate him from rival gumshoes? Susan, meanwhile, has become less intriguing and more annoying, prattling on about her lover's manly sense of honor. Some readers have actually suggested killing her off, just to force Spenser's life and career out of neutral. But she does provide philosophical and sexual balance in Spenser's otherwise rough, male-dominated world.
There's a whole raft of other regulars, among them cops Martin Quirk and Frank Belson, Paul Giacomin (a ballet dancer and Spenser's quasi-son), and, of course, gay author Rachel Wallace, who was introduced in an excellent early installment of this series, Looking for Rachel Wallace. Easily the best of this bunch, though, is Hawk, an African-American gentleman thug (how's that for a contradiction of terms?) who, between menacing suspects on Spenser's behalf and seducing an unlikely array of women, gets off some of the best lines in these books, frequently jumping with dizzying dexterity from ghettoese to the King's English. Consider this chunk of dialogue between Hawk and Spenser, taken from their meeting in a bar with local prostitution kingpin Tony Marcus:
"Tall skinny kid with the slick hair? Came in with the other two brothers? Name is Ty-Bop Tatum. He's Tony's shooter."
Unfortunately, while familiar characters and snappy lines might carry a TV sitcom, they aren't nearly enough to keep a detective series interesting. This is a plot-driven genre. Parker seems to have forgotten that. A couple of his recent works -- Walking Shadow and Thin Air -- might have been plotted by a computer, so unoriginal were they.
It's time for Parker to stop depending on his bedrock of faithful fans to sell his books, and devote more energy to developing the sort of creative, genre-bending stories that initially won him that following. Maybe he needs to let Spenser go for a while, put more energy into his other series about ex-alcoholic sheriff Jesse Stone, or do a few non-series titles to reignite his imagination. Turning out one Spenser a year is obviously too rapid a pace. Our favorite Boston private eye has become like some uncle you used to think was so clever and fun, but whose jokes and quirks have since become old. You don't want to see him go away entirely; you'd just rather he came by less often.
Seattle resident J. KINGSTON PIERCE is crime fiction editor of January Magazine and the author of several nonfiction books, including America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997) and San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995).