Spenser on aimless stroll in 'Hundred-Dollar Baby'
Hundred-Dollar Baby, By Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 304 pp., $24.95
Among the regular pleasures in my life are good crime novels, and some of the consistently terrific ones are part of Robert B. Parker's justly celebrated Spenser series. It's quite an oeuvre, totaling 34 books, including the latest addition, "Hundred-Dollar Baby."
Spenser has always been a pretty witty guy, notable for what might best be called existential one-liners. There are several beauts toward the start of the new book, like the following:
"Who the [expletive] are you?" a threatening wiseguy asks our unflappable hero. "I often wonder," he replies. "Don't you? Sometimes at night when you're alone?" A spasm of violence ensues. If that doesn't bring on a smile, then you, reader, and I are not on the same page.
With his ageless, tough-and-tender PI on cruise control, Parker gets "Hundred-Dollar Baby" smoothly, promisingly, underway. April Kyle, a character who has appeared in earlier Spenser novels, first as a young runaway in "Ceremony ," comes calling on Spenser desperate for help. She's an upscale prostitute turned madam, now managing a clubby brothel in a Back Bay mansion in Boston.
Someone not averse to mayhem and intimidation is apparently trying to take over her business. She wants Spenser to intervene, and because he aided her as a kid, April is sure he'll treat the job more like a personal, even paternal, mission. He does. Stuff happens: Local thugs turn up at the fancy Commonwealth Avenue whorehouse, one of the "girls" is roughed up, and various Boston heavies, one of whom is whacked at his hideaway, are suspected of venal involvement.
So far so good, but the plot, which eventually finds Spenser in New York working icy wintertime stake-outs and interviewing mobsters, thickens coarsely. The well-oiled writing, familiar to Parkerites, is always engaging, but the events and suspects pile up without adding up. Deep into the book, chatting with his longtime, laconic sidekick, Hawk, Spenser admits that "everybody I've talked to has lied about everything. . . . I don't want any stories. I want facts."
Virtually no one, April included, tells Spenser the truth about anything, which leads to narrative detours, dead ends, loose ends, and much head-scratching on the part of Spenser -- and the reader. It's as though the author didn't rigorously think this one through and just wasn't closely or eagerly enough connected to the material as he was dreaming it up and writing it down.
There are compensations. Spenser devotees will feel comfortably at home in Parker's beloved Boston, and with his cast of familiar characters, including Spenser's clever girlfriend Susan, among many others nasty and nice. Our hero's wit is undiminished, as is the author's easy, pared-down prose.
But the drifting story shows evidence of fatigue, and one wonders, with some sadness, whether Spenser is near the end of the road.