Okay, I know. I love the Spenser novels, too. One of the high points of the year for me is when Robert B. Parker opens up and releases the new Spenser novel. And you're disappointed that the new Robert B. Parker novel is not a Spenser novel. Well, we've already had a Spenser novel this year, the most excellent HUSH MONEY. So anything extra from Parker in 1999 is lagniappe, indeed.
But FAMILY HONOR is not just a little something extra. No. It is quite simply a great, great mystery from an author who started by being influenced by Raymond Chandler, and now, after well over 30 novels and a quarter-century, is an icon all by himself. And FAMILY HONOR solidifies that reputation, rather than coasting on it. So as Archie Bunker would say, Stifle already. Or as Austin Powers would say, Oh behave! Because this is a great book by any standard.
Are there similarities between Spenser and Sunny Randall, the protagonist of FAMILY HONOR? Yep. She's a Boston PI, owns a dog, is cultured, independent, caring and is a bit of a wiseass. She is not, however, Spenser with estrogen. She does not quite carry the confidence that Spenser does, but she is confident that she will someday have, if not all the answers to her life, enough to make it work. Her love life? Well, she is divorced, from the son of a mob family, but not out of love with him. Or he with her. Their relationship is by turns complicated, and simple. And still evolving. Just like the one you're in. And I'm in. Just like a relationship, in other words.
After some initial introspection from Sunny about who she is and where she comes from (dad is a retired cop, mom is a humorless, wannabe feminist) things start off with a bang as Sunny is retained to retrieve Millicent, the runaway teenage daughter of Brock and Betty Patton, a storybook couple --- if the storybook is written by Grimm. Sunny has connections and is able to retrieve Millicent quickly enough. But Millicent quickly becomes a tar baby for Sunny. Millicent does not want to go back to her parents and Sunny . . . takes her side. For this is not simply an incident of teenage rebellion against a curfew. Millicent's life is in danger. She heard something she was not supposed to and she has a mob enforcer after her. And all that is standing between Millicent and the mob is Sunny Randall. You can bet on Sunny. She has limitations, knows what they are, and compensates accordingly. But she is up against some heavy hitters.
And here we encounter something interesting. Parker is known for his strong, sharp characterization of his heroes. Nothing different here. What is unusual here is that Parker presents an unforgettable, malevolent character by the name of Cathal Kragan. Kragan's appearance is limited to a few pages but he is unforgettable. One of the passages dealing with Kragan deals with almost a revolting, even possibly controversial, incident where Millicent is in the wrong place at a very wrong time. It is also some of the best writing that Parker has ever done. Parker's sparse, understated prose is perfect for the situation. Where a lesser writer would have strayed into an exploitative description, Parker handles a very bad situation very well. As, indeed, he handles all situations.
So. Spenser fans. Do not fear. Sunny Randall is not a pretender. Nor is she a substitute for Spenser. What Parker has proven with the publication of FAMILY HONOR is a pleasant, if unacknowledged truth.
It is possible to be in love with two.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 7, 2000