Painted Ladies

Here is Briar Patch Book’s second review. Mick Scott is an editor and connoisseur of good literature who lives in Winston-Salem, N.C.

By Mick Scott

PAINTED LADIES. By Robert B. Parker. Putnam. 304 pages. $26.95.

Spenser is observing the day outside his office window when someone with unusual characteristics walks in to hire him.

That’s how every Spenser novel begins, but this regularity, far from being shopworn, is reassuring; “professional thug” Spenser is on the case; excitement will follow.

This case is that of Ashton Prince, an art expert who hires Spenser to accompany him as he ransoms a stolen rare painting. There’s really not much for Spenser to do but wait in the car and watch in the rear-view mirror as Prince returns from the exchange with a package — until the package explodes, killing Prince.

At this point, Spenser’s singular sense of responsibility leads him to investigate Prince’s murder. His main tactic is the same as always: Stir things up and see who jumps out at him. Along the way, he bangs heads with academics, professional cops and a couple of assassins who are no match for the detecting skills of his dog, Pearl.

Painted Ladies is not a good starting point for the unfamiliar reader. Those who do not love Spenser can find plenty to criticize in this series, especially the latter entries. The titles are generic to the point of abstraction. Premises are somewhat repetitive. It can seem as if developments — somebody taking the bait and attacking Spenser — are inevitable and predictable. These are hardly mysteries in the classic sense; there are no clues to interpret, and there’s no real surprise at any sort of twist in the story. Robert Parker has stated that what winds up in print is very much like his first draft, and there’s no reason to doubt him.

The power of Spenser is in the characters; the mildly humorous, insightful and knowledgeable dialogue; and the personalities that revolve around Spenser. A few stories are propelled by significant personal events — such as when Spenser’s paramour Susan Silverman leaves him in Valediction, or when a hired assassin nearly kills him in Small Vices. Most, like Painted Ladies, are more low-key. The reader is mostly riding shotgun with Spenser, a strong, self-assured, wise-cracking figure whose success is never in doubt, and that trip would be just as much fun if it were to Harris Teeter.

Spenser’s brother-in-arms, Hawk, is missing from this entry, which will lessen the delight for some fans.

Publisher Putnam says that Painted Ladies was completed a year before Parker’s death in January, and it’s nice to think that this is true, that no meddling editor has left his fingerprints on the manuscript. There’s no reason to think this happened; the writing is characteristically sparse and tidy, and the case resolves as they so often do, with no repercussions but echoes in the distance. (The main development in this installment is in the character of Otto, whom it will be left for the reader to discover.)

There’s supposed to be one more Spenser novel in the pipeline: Sixkill, scheduled for release in May. It seems disconcerting that Spenser, often the target of crooks, guns and bombs, survives while his creator does not.

Along with his other writings, Parker completed an unfinished manuscript by Raymond Chandler, Poodle Springs, which came out none the worse for this time-lapsed collaboration. Still, Spenser is just as unique as Philip Marlowe, and it would seem a desecration to mar him in the hands of lesser writers. Let’s hope for no further Spenser novels, at least not for another 50 years.

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