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A Rare Misstep for the Irreverent Spenser

Mysteries

April 10, 2000|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the past 26 years, Robert B. Parker has written 36 books, a prodigious achievement by any standard. Even more remarkable, nearly all are worth reading. Most--26 by my count--have featured Parker's famous Boston private detective Spenser. Though, of late, the plots have thinned and Spenser's cool demeanor has slipped into smugness, the series has continued to be among the best of its kind. Last year's "Hush Money," for example, found author and creation at top form. How then is one to explain the sheer awfulness of the new entry, "Hugger Mugger" (Putnam, $23.95, 307 pages)?

The setup is promising. Someone is shooting the horses at Walter Clive's Georgia stable. The targets have been barn ponies, not thoroughbreds. Is it lunacy or is it a threat to the stable's prize hunk of horseflesh, Hugger Mugger? His bottom line suffering from too much pro bono work, Spenser agrees to investigate. Actually, he deigns to do the job. That's one of the big problems: the narrator-sleuth's attitude. Usually refreshingly abrasive and cynical, it is condescending here. And angry. Spenser's feeling of moral superiority has always placed him a few feet above the common herd he serves, but in this novel, he's so annoyed at having to go to work, he treats all but a chosen few like scum.

The only thing that moves him these days, he reminds us ad infinitum, is his love affair with the impossibly flawless Susan Silverman. He doesn't care about horses or racing, so he more or less ignores them, robbing the novel of any sort of background. The effortless, effective snapshots of his native Boston are replaced by unfocused glimpses of a vaguely Southern town that seems to consist solely of the Clive compound, a gay bar, a bordello, a sheriff's office and a motel, all of them generic. (There's also a totally extraneous side trip to a guidebook San Francisco.)

The characters are hurriedly sketched and, in most cases (murder victim and one major villain included) introduced and ignored. The women Spenser meets are all beautiful and flirtatious and, by and large, decadent or worse. The men are stupid or weak or bent, except for a shrewd African American lawman and a hard-boiled homosexual. They're filling in for his longtime partner, Hawk, who's on vacation in France. Lucky him.

It would not be wild speculation to suppose that Spenser's boredom with the job is a reflection of Parker's feeling for turning out annual novels about the private eye. Recently, he has begun two new series, both featuring younger, considerably less jaded protagonists--small-town police Chief Jesse Stone and female private eye Sunny Randall. Judging by "Hugger Mugger," he should probably stick with them for a while and give Spenser and Susan a needed rest.

*

Tim Cockey's "The Hearse You Came In On" (Hyperion, $22.95, 308 pages) is a first novel that introduces Baltimore undertaker Hitchcock Sewell, a contemporary version of that nearly forgotten hero, the screwball detective. Sewell has a dotty aunt, a self-obsessed ex-wife, a colorful hangout populated by funny drunks and a wise-guy disposition.

In "Hearse," he winds up in the middle of a hotly contested gubernatorial election, his life complicated by a beautiful cop, a potential scandal involving murder and toxic waste, and porno videotapes featuring the society wife of one of the candidates. Cockey's style is smooth and streamlined, his plot serviceable and the Baltimore setting refreshingly different, but Sewell's unwavering flippancy seems out of place when the story turns nasty and his snappy comebacks are so incessant that, by novel's end, I was worn out by them.

*

The new edition of Jon L. Breen's "Novel Verdicts" (Scarecrow Press, $39.50, 292 pages) brings his 1984 Edgar-winning courtroom fiction guide up to date (or at least up to 1997). Of its nearly 800 entries, 421 are new, devoted to such recently appointed lords of the legal thriller as John Grisham, Steve Martini, Paul Levine and Richard North Patterson. Breen, a novelist, editor and critic, as well as a professor of English at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, treats each book and story to a plot summary, trial description and bottom-line critique. Fans should be intrigued. Idea-parched authors and screenwriters may have motives a bit more devious for delving into this comprehensive cornucopia of judicial twists and turns.

The Times reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O' Gorman on audio books.

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