Family Honor

by Robert B. Parker

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons

304 pages, 1999

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Sunny Shines

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Well, detective fictionist Robert B. Parker has finally had the last laugh on critics who've claimed over the years that he is trying to duplicate the style and success of his more renowned American predecessors. With his brand-new novel, Family Honor -- his first to feature a woman private eye -- this Boston writer shows that he isn't so interested in copying the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald as he is in imitating himself.

Back in 1981, Parker published Early Autumn, his seventh novel about the single-monikered Spenser, a wise-cracking, honor-bound, ex-heavyweight boxer-turned-detective who could not only quote poetry, but whip up a mean potato-and-onion omelet, besides. Something of a departure both for the author and for the genre to which he was contributing, Early Autumn found Spenser being paid by a woman, Patty Giacomin, to rescue her 15-year-old son Paul from the clutches of her ex-hubby Mel. During the course of this assignment, though, Spenser realizes that neither the boy's promiscuous mother nor his vengeful insurance agent dad truly cares about the increasingly withdrawn and apathetic Paul. So he basically kidnaps the boy and takes him to Maine. There, Spenser (whose father was a carpenter) enlists Paul in the building of a cabin, while simultaneously introducing him to weight lifting, running and good music -- all intended to give him a sense of purpose and maybe some pride in himself. When his parents insist that the P.I. return Paul to them, Spenser refuses. Instead, he blackmails them into paying their son's bills, but otherwise leaving him free of their corrosive influences.

"[L]et him go away to school, let him spend holidays with me, or where he wants to," Spenser tells Patty Giacomin, "make no attempt to claim custody or make him live with you or your husband."

Now, compare this with the plot of Family Honor, in which another Boston sleuth-for-hire, sexy Sonya Joan ("Sunny") Randall, is contracted to find Millicent Patton, the 15-year-old runaway daughter of upper-crusters Betty and Brock Patton. It doesn't take long for Sunny to locate the girl and liberate her from the clutches of an oleaginous pimp named Pharaoh Fox. But Millicent doesn't want to be sent back home. She calls her parents "creepy," and insists that they only hired a detective to find her because "they worry what the neighbors think." Suspecting that there's something terribly dysfunctional, even dangerous in the Pattons' domestic affairs, Sunny agrees to let Millicent stay with her -- meanwhile teaching her a bit about how to live as a modern woman -- until she can figure out what the girl is afraid of at home.

She learns that before hitting the streets, Millicent had overheard her mother and a local Irish thug named Cathal Kragan discussing how to murder somebody. Now Kragan wants the teenager dead, and he has no compunction against making Sunny a collateral casualty. To save both herself and the girl, Sunny solicits the aid of her mob-connected ex-husband, Richie Burke; a malevolent gay restaurateur named Spike; and Tony Marcus, Boston's leading black dealer in whores. She'll need all of that protection and more. Because as it turns out, Millicent is just a small element of a much larger and more tawdry case -- one that involves pornographic photos of Betty Patton; banker Brock Patton's scheme to become the Republican governor of Massachusetts; and a Rhode Island mob boss' efforts to expand his New England franchise. By the time Family Honor runs its course, Sunny has not only saved Millicent's butt (and her own shapelier one), but determined that the only way the teenager is ever going to mature as a person -- or as a woman -- is to be shed of her self-obsessed and unloving parents. So, echoing Spenser's tactics in Early Autumn, Sunny bargains to protect the elder Pattons' criminal secrets, in exchange for their agreement to finance Millicent into adulthood, but essentially stay out of her life, allowing her to live with Sunny in her South Boston loft.

Author Parker concedes the similarities between these two books -- and adds that they were intentional. "I thought we would see how [the same plot] worked out with a woman," he says. "One of the things it allows me to do is to examine the issue of what we say to a woman when we want her to be tough. We say to a boy, 'Be a man.' But it's different with a woman."

While that sounds more like a writer's conceit than it does an adequate justification for telling the same sort of story twice, I'm here to say that Family Honor works. It doesn't expand the definition of gumshoe fiction in the same manner that Early Autumn (which crossed hard-boiled conventions with boys' adventure literature) did 18 years ago. Yet each book, in its own way, shows Parker to be better than most of the yarns he has churned out over these last few years.

* * *

Inaugurating a third series (on top of his now 26 Spenser stories and two other books centering on a small-town Massachusetts police chief named Jesse Stone) wasn't Parker's idea. It was his friend Helen Hunt's. The Oscar Award-winning American actress (and former co-star of the TV sitcom Mad About You) asked him to create Sunny Randall so that she could play the character in one or more movies. (A film adaptation of Family Honor is already slated to begin shooting next year.)

I can easily envision Hunt spouting Sunny's sarcastic and often biting dialogue, or voice-overing the P.I.'s arrival at the Patton estate, a scene that harkens back reverently to the opening of yet another familiar work from this genre: Chandler's The Big Sleep. ("I drove through a light rain up a winding half-mile driveway in South Natick, dressed to the teeth in a blue pant suit, a white silk tee shirt, a simple gold chain, and a fabulous pair of matching heels. I was calling on a lot of money.")

However, Sunny is no quick sketch of a private dick into whom the talented Hunt must breathe a sense of vitality. Not since Spenser himself has Parker introduced a figure who is so fully realized and enjoyable from the first appearance:

One of the good things about being a woman in my profession [Sunny remarks in Chapter One] is that there's not many of us, so there's a lot of work available. One of the bad things is figuring out where to carry the gun.... My sister Elizabeth suggested that I had plenty of room to carry the gun in my bra. I have never much liked Elizabeth.

In some respects, Sunny is an archetypal Parker protagonist -- an ardent romantic, with a highly personal set of ethical and moral standards. But, contrary to what some reviewers might have you believe, she is not simply Spenser with suppler breasts. She's far more intriguing than that.

Thirty-four years old, with a degree in social work and a brief history as a cop (the family business -- her father, uncles and grandfather were all among Boston's finest), Sunny lives alone, save for a spoiled English bull terrier named Rosie. She takes painting classes and is working toward an MFA. She reads books by architectural historian Vincent Scully. She can't abide talk radio, football or her disapproving mother. Unlike Spenser, she doesn't know how to cook worth a damn. (In one memorable episode, Sunny concludes that she isn't even capable of rolling out pizza dough.) Although she's divorced from saloonkeeper Richie Burke -- partly due to the fact that her family and his are on opposite sides of the law, but also because he's "so closed, so interior... so too much like her father" -- the pair remain friends. They share dinners out weekly, neither of them ready to admit once and for all that they don't belong together. And Sunny knows that she can rely on Richie and his clan to extricate her from tight spots, even if she feels hypocritical in asking for such assistance.

Fortunately, she needn't ask very often. Like Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski or Linda Barnes' Carlotta Carlyle, Sunny is an intelligent, self-confident woman who can handle herself around sexist men and other malefactors. (Parker explains that, in order to ensure Sunny's credibility as a strong woman of the 1990s, his wife Joan read his evolving manuscript for the book "once a week.") All of this is made clear in a particularly entertaining set-piece near the start of Family Honor, in which Millicent Patton's father, an obnoxious lech and shooting champ, tries to put Sunny in her place by challenging her to target practice in his back yard, knowing that her snub-nosed .38 Special won't give her much range:

"I'll toss this in the air [Patton said, holding a small clay target], and you put a bullet through it...."

He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I nodded. He smiled as if to himself and stepped out of the shed and tossed the disk maybe thirty feet straight up into the air. I didn't move. The disk hit its zenith and came down and landed softly on the wet grass about eight feet beyond the shed. And lay on its side. I walked out of the shed, and over to the disk, and standing directly above it, I put a bullet through the middle of it from a distance of about eighteen inches. The disk shattered. Patton stared at me.

"I don't need to be able to shoot something falling through the air thirty feet away," I said. "This gun is quite effective at this range, Brock, which is about the only range I'll ever need it for."

Somehow, when Spenser says things like that, it just makes him look like a macho throwback. Yet Sunny can get away with it. Even two decades after women started invading the previously male province of fictional private eyes, it's still good to see a female gumshoe putting tough guys in their place. Parker even gets in a good dig at his man Spenser, when Millicent asks Sunny how she intends to protect her from the malevolent Cathal Kragan -- "you're a girl like me, for crissake, what are you going to do?" To which Sunny responds: "It would be nice... [i]f I weighed two hundred pounds and used to be a boxer. But I'm not, so we find other ways."

* * *

I wish I could report that the supporting players in Family Honor are as satisfying as Ms. Randall. They are not.

Spike, the homicidal homosexual sidekick, would be more interesting if he wasn't such a blatant knock-off of Hawk, from the Spenser tales, another member of a minority group given to challenging preconceived social biases. Millicent Patton, who is evidently joining this series' regular cast, doesn't show many dimensions here; however, she promises to eventually test (probably severely) Sunny's ambitions as a surrogate mother and offer both of them opportunities to define exactly what they want as women in a male-dominated world.

And Sunny's ex, Richie? Let's just say that whatever continues to attract Sunny to him is not obvious from this premiere installment of the series. Aside from his ability to impart menace in hushed tones (and hey, don't we wish we all could do that?), the mob scion appears dry and rather shallow, hardly the sort to bestir the passionate heart of a woman like Sunny. His only value thus far seems to be as part of a continuing subplot, in which Richie and Sunny resist the urge to get together again, forcing both to realize that loving somebody does not mean you could or should live with them. Sunny's character benefits from her halting attempts to bring other men into her life. Alas, this novel's ending hints that Parker may try to reconstruct the relationship between Sunny and Richie, to make their personal life more like the tedious union between Spenser and his longtime lover, psychiatrist Susan Silverman.

That would be a shame. This series doesn't need to be any more like the Spenser stories. Already, because Sunny's beat is Boston and she runs into secondary figures from Parker's better-known series (Tony Marcus and his gunsel, Ty-Bop Tatum, for instance, were last seen in 1998's Sudden Mischief), Family Honor feels unnecessarily derivative. Parker is a sharp writer, his prose is punchy, his dialogue fluid and agreeably leavened by humor. Surely, he has enough imagination to set a different course for Sunny than is being followed by either the aging Spenser or the disappointing Chief Stone.

He should at least give it a shot. Whether it's due to the influence of Helen Hunt or simply that he enjoys the novelty of writing from a female perspective, Robert B. Parker has created a new protagonist here who could someday be as big as Spenser. Perhaps even bigger. Sunny Randall may barely be able to boil water, but judging by her first outing, this P.I. really cooks. | September 1999


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.

To learn more about Robert B. Parker's current and previous works, check out Dodd Vickers' unofficial (and only slightly too-adoring) Parker Web site, Shylock.