For many, fall is the season of falling leaves, shorter days and
cooler nights. But for mystery fans, fall is the time of year for a
new Spenser novel from the dean of American crime fiction, Robert
B. Parker. ROUGH WEATHER is the 36th book featuring Spenser, the
wise-cracking Boston detective whose first name we still have never
discovered. Not that it matters at this point.
ROUGH WEATHER will not disappoint. The series is as fresh and
pertinent now as it was when Parker published the first Spenser
novel, THE GODWOLF MANUSCRIPT, in 1973. Indeed, in recent years,
the series has taken a darker, more noir-like turn while still
giving readers everything they have come to love and expect from
Spenser: his wit, his strength, his sense of justice.
Parker did not come to the mystery writing business the
traditional way. The pulps were long gone by the time he arrived,
and he was not a newspaperman. Instead, he got a PhD in literature
from Boston University. His dissertation studied the private eyes
of an earlier age created by pulp giants like Dashiell Hammett and
Raymond Chandler. These writers brought the private eye into
20th-century America. But Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series
consisted of just seven novels. Parker’s Spenser series is
now over five times longer than Chandler’s. And in the
process, Parker has taken the American private eye into the 21st
century and created one of the greatest fictional characters in
The America of 2008 is far different from the America of 1973,
but at the start of ROUGH WEATHER we find Spenser in his usual
setting, staring out the window of his office at the young women
walking by on Berkeley Street. And then the story kicks in. Parker
“I was thinking about sex when there was a delicate knock
on my door. Immediately after the knock, the door opened and a
woman came in for whom I was in the perfect state of mind. She was
a symphony of thick auburn hair, even features, wide mouth, big
eyes, stunning figure, elegant clothes, expensive perfume, and what
people who would talk that way would call breeding.”
Chandler could not have written it better.
The mysterious woman, Heidi Bradshaw, hires Spenser to be her
bodyguard at the wedding of her daughter, which will be held on a
private island off the Massachusetts coast. The island has its own
private security force, so it is not clear why she needs Spenser,
except, she points out, “as a kind of balance to my
insecurity.” Spenser responds, “An insecurity
Right from the start, the novel follows the noir credo that
nothing is what it seems. And sure enough, a hurricane hits the
island right as the wedding begins, which coincides as well with
the arrival of a highly trained commando team that kills the groom
and reverend at the altar and then kidnaps the bride. Spenser is in
the first row with his longtime love, Dr. Susan Silverman. He
manages to save Susan and kill one of the bad guys but not before
the bride is whisked away as the storm lifts.
As if this was not bad enough, the lead kidnapper just happens
to be the “Gray Man,” the shadowy CIA-type operative
who is the only one who ever came close to killing Spenser several
years back. Why is he involved in a kidnapping? And the
bride’s father and stepfather have money, as does the groom,
the heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. But after the bride is
snatched, no ransom note appears. What kind of kidnapping is
Spenser is officially off the case, but that has never stopped
him before --- and it does not stop him now. He has to get
involved. His knight-errant code has been violated. Even though he
does not know why he was hired by Heidi, six people were killed on
his watch. Spenser simply says, “I wasn’t very
useful.” He has to find the girl and solve the case.
But the presence of the Gray Man puts Spenser’s life at
risk. It is pretty much understood that the Gray Man is the only
person alive who can kill Spenser (this is his third appearance in
the series). The threat to Spenser brings in Hawk, his faithful
thug sidekick. The banter between them is one of the great treats
of this series.
“‘And so you been doing what you do, which is poke
around in the hornet’s nest until you irritate a
hornet,’ Hawk said.
“‘Not a bad technique,’ Hawk said, ‘long
as you got me to walk behind you.’”
Indeed, the Gray Man does try to kill Spenser and the bodies
pile up. Meanwhile, the mother of the bride, Heidi, shows very
little interest in the fate of her own daughter, and other players
involved just wish Spenser would go away.
When the Spenser series started, Spenser was a veteran of the
Korean War. There have been a lot of wars involving America since
then. The series acknowledges that Spenser is aging but not that he
and Hawk are men in their 70s beating up tough guys half their age.
That is not the point. The series stays fresh with timely and
timeless hard-boiled stories and brilliant writing.
People still kill for greed, sex and power --- the reasons they
always did. And it is not just the Gray Man involved here, but a
gray world where sometimes, maybe even most of the time, people die
for nothing. But that does not mean Spenser is going to stop trying
to find justice his own way.
ROUGH WEATHER packs an explosive punch. It is the perfect book
for a lazy fall weekend. Parker is a great writer at the absolute
top of his game. Reading his books is like being in the room
watching Sinatra sing.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 23, 2011