Review

Now & Then: A Spenser Novel

by Robert B. Parker

In
1971 a college professor with a doctorate in literature wrote a
mystery novel featuring a Boston private eye with no first name
called Spenser. America during Vietnam was already a world removed
from the days of Raymond Chandler and pulp fiction and post-World
War II hard-boiled film noir. So there were probably not a lot of
expectations for the book.

But now, 36 years and 34 books later, Robert B. Parker has written
the 35th Spenser novel, NOW & THEN. Parker is the
acknowledged dean of American mystery writers. And Spenser’s
place in the pantheon of American fictional detectives is assured
for all time, right up there with Chandler’s Marlowe,
Macdonald’s Archer and Hammett’s Sam Spade.

For those of us who have been longtime fans of the series, a new
Spenser novel is like a yearly visit from an old friend. We look
forward to hearing the latest adventure of Spenser, his love Susan
and his faithful sidekick Hawk. And if our memories are good
enough, we can mark the milestones of our lives by these books. The
Spenser titles are so good that they resonate over time. They will
be read forever, much like Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle.

NOW & THEN does not disappoint. And there is a new treat when
you open this book’s cover: a map of Spenser’s Boston.
Now those of us not familiar with the city can see exactly where
Spenser’s office is on Berkeley Street and its distance from
the Four Seasons Hotel and the Harbor Health Club. I am sure some
enterprising Boston tour guides must be offering Spenser tours by
now, just as there are Sam Spade tours of San Francisco and Al
Capone tours of Chicago.

The book begins as so many Spenser stories do --- right in that
office when a client appears. A distraught man wants to find out if
his wife is cheating on him. Spenser does not like divorce work
because, he says, it makes him “feel like a Peeping
Tom.” But something in the man’s demeanor drags up
painful memories for the detective of the time over 20 years
earlier when Susan briefly left him for another man.

Fans of the series will immediately flash back to the classic
Spenser novel A CATSKILL EAGLE. It doesn’t take long
for Spenser and Hawk to find concrete evidence, including an
x-rated audio tape, that the man’s wife is indeed having a
rather energetic affair with another man. But there is something
else on the tape. Spenser learns that his client is an FBI agent,
and his wife is passing on information about terror groups to her
lover.

So Spenser decides to keep investigating. The case appears to be
over when the wife is brutally assassinated on her way to work, and
the FBI agent’s body is found floating in the water a few
days later. But it is not that easy for the detective to let it
go.

As the FBI special agent in charge tells Spenser:

“‘We agreed that you operated under the illusion that
you’re Sir Lancelot.’

‘Explains why my strength is as the strength of ten,’ I
said.

‘That was Galahad,’ Epstein said.

‘Wow, a literate bureaucrat.’”

But the truth is that Spenser does operate on his own moral code.
And that has been constant throughout the series. The private dick
with the heart of gold, he is a tough guy who is not cynical or
jaded. He simply cannot let the case go because, he says, “I
shouldn’t let clients get murdered without doing something
about it.”

So he lets the killer know he has the incriminating tape, which
means not only using himself as bait, but also possibly endangering
the love of his life, Susan. Plus, he has to ask himself if he is
really after justice for the slain FBI agent or revenge for what
happened to him years before when Susan left him.

There is a little less violence and gunplay in this Spenser book
than in some of the others. But this is more a psychological study
of an admittedly aging hero. Spenser says at one point, “It
was dark out, and when I looked out the window all I could see was
my own reflection. I didn’t look old, exactly, maybe a little
weathered, sort of. Like a guy who had seen too many bodies. Heard
too many lies. Fired too many shots. Swapped too many
punches.”

That is about as introspective as Spenser is ever going to get. But
Parker has accomplished a remarkable feat with this series: he has
kept these stories as fresh as they were three decades ago. And he
has done that through great writing.

All the elements we expect are present in NOW & THEN. We
find the short chapters and snappy dialogue. But even longtime
readers and this professional writer can find new things that
astonish and delight.

For example, Parker will insert a line of physical description to
underline the mood of the scene. When Susan confronts the killer,
Parker writes, “Through the front window I could see an
inconsequential flurry of snow drift past.” A warning perhaps
of the storm to come.

Finally there is the sheer poetry Parker achieves when he writes
about the Spenser/Susan relationship. Spenser says, “I was
driving, Susan besides me. It was dark. The wipers were moving
gently. It embodied most of what I wanted in life, alone with
Susan, going someplace, protected from the rain.”

We can only hope that Parker can keep them going for many more
years to come. Reading NOW & THEN is like listening to a great
jazz performer at the top of his game on stage. After it’s
over, you feel fortunate to have been in the room. We have been
lucky to be able to read Robert B. Parker for all these
years.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 13, 2011

Now & Then: A Spenser Novel
by Robert B. Parker

  • Publication Date: October 23, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0399154418
  • ISBN-13: 9780399154416