28 October 2007

Back Story, by Robert B. Parker

G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 2003. 291 pages

This is a Spenser novel, one of the series of thirty or more, featuring characters well-known to those of us who have read so many of these. Hawk, Susan Silverman, Quirk, Spenser, and yet another Pearl (I don't know what happened to Pearl I, in a novel I didn't read), the dog.

Spenser is a private detective living in Boston. Susan is his love, a respected psychiatrist. Hawk is a "criminal genius," a former covert operative of vague and mysterious roots, an African-American keenly aware of the tension between races in our society who will be reading impenetrable scientific literature in one scene, only to respond with the worst shuck-and-jive language ("sho nuf") in the next.

Spenser is nothing less than a Samurai. He is strong, brave, skilled at warfare beyond belief, and possessed of a powerful sense of right and wrong. People come to him who have been wronged, treated unfairly, by powers that they are too weak to overcome, and Spenser sets out to correct the injustice.

In this novel Spenser is approached by a young woman, Daryl, through the intercession of his adopted son Paul Giacomin. Daryl's mother was killed in a bank robbery in Boston in 1974; this story is placed somewhere in more current times, probably at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (My, it's strange to write that.) It was never discovered who exactly shot her mother to death, there is a cloud of mystery and a hint of cover-up over the crime. This is essential Spenser. He goes to work.

Through the story he unravels the facts of the case, not without risking his life and those of his friends, and killing several of the enemy who try to keep him from the truth. He uncovers a complicated intrigue involving organized crime and the FBI, which I will not explain out of a desire not to spoil the mystery for those who have not yet read this delicious book.

There is a strange and bittersweet ending, a sort of shifting of resolution that I found interesting, even realistic. But make no mistake, this is rich fantasy, pure escape fiction: There are no Spensers walking the face of this planet. No woman is as beautiful or tolerant as Silverman, no friend as powerful, connected and brave as Hawk. No cops (including the FBI) so impotent and frustrated, or at worst corrupt and evil, connected to the mob or mired in cover-ups of their own mistakes. There will be no resolution of this puzzle without Spenser's intervention.

At the end of the battle the Samurai sheaths his sword. The field is littered with dead bodies. The world is still evil, but he has inserted some balance, neutralized some threats. He has done what he set out to do, but we are not sure if Daryl will know the details of who killed her mother. She has, according to the formula, opted out, told Spenser to stop looking, she doesn't want to know any more. But Spenser did not stop once he had begun; he leaves no job unfinished.

This is escape fiction at its best, with a few thought-provoking threads woven through it. Parker has something to say about the hippies and the anti-establishment movement in the seventies, the dope-smoking culture, and the modern hangers-on who live in this past, rolling joints and cursing the Man. Over-simplified it may be, but he makes his case: if you want to change the world, you'd better be ready to get hurt and hurt some others, you'd better have a good plan and the means to execute it. Self-reliance is what Spenser is about: he knows exactly whom he can trust.

Parker is also interested in the discomfort we feel when we are inescapably faced with racial issues. He contrasts Spenser's invulnerable bond with the equally invulnerable Hawk, and their superiority to prejudicial thinking expressed through their black-and-white ribbing, their comedic take on the whole "what color am I" issue, with the stark hatred and rejection between whites and blacks that drives essential elements of this plot.

It is also important to mention that in this novel Spenser meets Jesse Stone, the police chief of Paradise, Massachusetts. Stone is the star of another excellent series by Parker, which has had some success adapted for television -- as did the Spenser series in the past.

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading Robert B. Parker, wait no longer. There is a pile of great reading here, you can't go wrong.

Some other than official Robert B. Parker Web Sites:

Bullets and Beer

A Parker Biography on Kirjasto (Pegasos, at www.kirjasto.sci.fi.)
A Parker Article at bookreporter.com
New York Times Article
Wikipedia Entry (includes more links)

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