by Robert B. Parker
The Berkley Publishing Group (2007)
Readers who enjoy the detective genre love Robert B. Parker.
A formula writer? You bet, and what a formula.
Called the Dean of American Crime Fiction his Spenser Series, Jesse Stone Series and Sunny Randall Series are a reader’s answer to a foodie’s idea of great appetizers. Parker clearly – plot, character, story and setting – serves us small portions. The dialogue is clipped and clever; chapters are short and so readable it’s rare when we don’t hear our stomach growl for more good writing. “That was really great; I think I’ll have another.”
Bad news, good news. Parker passed away in 2010 but before leaving he wrote some 70 of these gems. So grab a plate and prepare to try a bit of this and a bit of that – they’re all so very tasty.
I chose Now & Then, the Spencer novel here not because it’s my all-time favorite, but because it exemplifies, through story, plot and characters, the way Parker worked his magic.
Typically a Spenser opens with the detective sitting at his desk in his Boston office, reading Garfield in the morning newspaper, snacking on donuts while slipping a morsel to Pearl, his German short haired pointer.
Occasionally he’ll walk to the window and watch the women of Bean Town dressed for success as they make their way to the workplace.
Enter client and the fun begins, with the glib Spenser and prospective employer invariably getting off on the wrong foot.
Here’s how he kicks off Now & Then:
“He came into my office carrying a thin briefcase under his left arm. He was wearing a dark suit and a white shirt with a red-and-blue striped tie. His red hair was cut very short. He had a thin, sharp face. He closed the door carefully behind him and turned and gave me the hard eye.
“You Spenser?” he said.
“And proud of it,” I said.
He looked at me aggressively and didn’t say anything. I smiled pleasantly.
“Are you being a wise guy” he said.
“Only for a second,” I said. “What can I do for you?”
“I don’t like this,” he said.
“Well,” I said. “It’s a start.”
“I don’t like funny either,” he said.
“Then we should do great,” I said.
“My name Dennis Doherty,” he said.
“I love alliteration,” I said.
“There I go again,” I said.
“Listen, pal. You don’t want my business just say so.”
“I don’t want your business,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
He stood and walked toward my door. He opened it and stopped and turned around.
“I came on a little strong,” he said.
“I noticed that,” I said.
“Lemme start over,” Doherty said.
“Try not to frighten me,” I said.
And so begins the hiring of Spenser, Private Eye, who will gumshoe around until he has evidence that Dennis Doherty’s wife is in fact having an affair.
But not so fast my page-turning friends, that’s not what you get in Now & Then or any other Spenser novel. Oh, the lovely Mrs. Doherty is screwing around all right but the with who (character) leads us to one of Parker’s finest and most relentless chases.
It turns out most of the bad guy’s bad behavior isn’t between the sheets. People lie and people die and to catch Perry Anderson, this well written villain, Spenser is so obsessed he puts himself and everyone he loves in jeopardy. And that’s another beauty of the Spenser collection, the characters recurring in these novels. And if they’re not all lovable, they’re people we’d all like to be, at least in part, if only for the moment.
You see, they’re downright fearless.
Oh, Spenser, an ex-cop who had problems with “structure” when on the police force, as the lead dog (as a PI) has some real “huskies” in his employ—shooters who break all the rules. So things get wild and wooly.
Dr. Susan Silverman, the love of Spenser’s life, is the exception when it comes to this Wild West mentality. Susan, a Harvard educated psychiatrist, is gorgeous, sexy, and brilliant and has both Spenser’s back and front (yes, they have sex a lot but manage to keep it discreetly to themselves. We, along with the dog, get shut out of their boudoir).
They have quite a past and although this is the novel where we learn all about the lovers’ ancient woes the good doctor, again, like the others is a most welcome character, one to look at and look out for as her insights into the criminal mind prove invaluable to Spenser.
Epstein is a good guy FBI agent, countered by two of Spenser’s favorite (for hire) guns – Chollo and Vinnie, professional shooters who shoot to kill and not only don’t ask questions later, they never question. See bad guy shoot bad guy!
Then there’s Hawk, Spenser’s best friend. How shall we describe Hawk? Oh, I’ve got it! The black Superman, with a few caveats. Superman never looked so good in tights as this tall, very dark and handsome handy henchman. Fight, shoot, cover, Spenser’s ass – call 1-800-HAWK. And, although a skosh more moral than Chollo and Vinnie, Hawk’s idea of fair play would make the Cape Crusader blush as he also makes hits on bad guys like he was picking off ducks at a carnival range.
Hawk and Spenser are big ballsy twins of a different color and nothing amuses them more – other than going to the gym where they put on the gloves, hop in the ring, and pound the hell out of each other – than waiting in a bar (drinks) or a car (typically bagels or donuts) to pop a bad guy.
Here they carry on entertaining politically incorrect dialogue with Spenser playing the racist and Hawk, the master of Ebonics, taking on the role of a recently freed slave. They are neither!
Here’s a taste:
Hawk shrugged. We were in his car, parked on Linnaeus Street across from Susan’s home.
“You afraid he’ll make a run at Susan? Hawk said.
“If he’s learned enough he’ll know it’s the only thing he can blackmail me back with, he can’t come straight at me because he doesn’t know where the tape is.”
“You thinking about reinforcements?” Hawk said.
“Me and Vinnie gonna get spread pretty thin covering your ass and hers.”
“I’ve made some calls,” I said. “Until we get more feedback we’ll all cover Susan’s ass…so to speak.”
“Lot better-looking than yours,” Hawk said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Yeah, you do,” Hawk said.
Who keeps these “We color outside the lines” cops in line. Well Epstein, the FBI agent tries. But then there’s the fact that Spenser always has the goods, the angle, the line on the perp and so deals are cut which make the now fashionable Don’t Ask Don’t Tell slogan very appropriate.
Now & Then – which again, begins as a simple adultery case – takes us along for the ride on a relentless pursuit of an evil man that both Dr. Silverman and Hawk feel Spenser might see as the kind of man who – years ago – stole his love Silverman away.
So plenty to chew on here (Parker writes great cooking scenes and stirs them in with his dialogue) with Epstein and the FBI fencing with Spenser jockeying for position to get the bad guy while breaking a terrorist cell, all with the constant fear that Spenser may have put Susan Silverman (she ends up taking on Anderson as a client) in mortal danger.
To share more would be unfair to the whodunit and why. But anyone who has an appetite for great crime fiction will be delighted by Now & Then and in fact in any of the approximately 70 other Robert B. Parker crime fiction novels. So when you’ve paged through the Spencer series give the Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone books a read.
For a copy of Now & Then ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy the crime fiction for less than Spencer pays for those crème filled donuts he consumes by the dozen. Just click on the book’s cover.