Are we ever going to learn Spenser's first name?
Thirty-seven years after Robert B. Parker introduced the Boston-based private detective in "The Godwulf Manuscript," and nine months after Parker died of a heart attack at his writing desk, another novel in the long-running series has been published.
Although Parker never gave his most famous creation a first name, he gave him boundless courage, a stubborn streak, a hostility toward authority, a loathing for anything pretentious, and the smartest mouth in captivity. As Spenser said about the latter on more than one occasion, "I get a lot of complaints about it."
All of these familiar traits are on display in "Painted Ladies," which also features many of Spenser's longtime supporting cast including two able Massachusetts cops, Capt. Martin Quirk and Lt. Frank Belson, as well as Spenser's one true love, Susan Silverman. In many ways, this is as much Susan's book as it is Spenser's, the Boston psychologist playing a major role in the story. But many Parker fans will be disappointed that Hawk, Spenser's intimidating African-American sidekick, has no role in the tale.
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As the story opens, a condescending, coed-chasing art scholar named Dr. Ashton Prince hires Spenser to help him ransom a rare painting that has been stolen from a museum. But the ransom delivery goes bad, and Prince ends up dead. Spenser didn't' much like him, but he can't stomach the fact that the man was killed on his watch. As he begins to investigate, it quickly becomes clear that the painting was stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust, that its provenance is in doubt, and that almost no one but Spenser is interested in the truth about either the theft or the murder.
As with all of Parker's 70 novels, which include a series about a small-time Massachusetts police chief named Jesse Stone and a short series featuring two cowboys named Hitch and Cole, the prose is tight and muscular and the dialogue is superb. But the plot of "Painted Ladies," as with much of Parker's later work, is thin. In fact, the series has been running on fumes for more than a decade.
Critics overwhelmingly prefer the early novels in the series, including "Early Autumn" and "Looking for Rachel Wallace," which are widely considered among the detective genre's classics.
Nevertheless, the 39th Spenser book is a must-read for faithful fans of the series because the character, one of the most enduring in the annals of crime fiction, won't be with us much longer. At least one more is coming: "Sixkill" is scheduled to be published in May.
"Painted Ladies" by Robert B. Parker (Putnam, 291 pages, $26,95)