Robert B. Parker, creator of the acclaimed Spenser detective
series, decided about a decade ago to introduce two new mystery
series, it probably caused some consternation among longtime fans
who feared that Parker was tiring of Spenser. We need not have
worried. The Spenser franchise is still as strong as ever.
And now, instead of doing one great book a year, Parker has been
doing three. The author has been giving each of his series
characters a novel per year. In addition to Spenser, there is
female private eye Sunny Randall and Massachusetts chief of police
Jesse Stone. Parker also recently completed his first book for
young adults, EDENVILLE OWLS. He is indeed prolific.
SPARE CHANGE is the sixth Sunny Randall book. As far as we
know, Sunny has never met Spenser. She is certainly not a female
Spenser. Parker has demonstrated convincingly that he can write
from a woman’s point of view.
Like Spenser, Sunny used to be a cop before she went private. Her
father, Phil Randall, was a captain in the Boston police, now
SPARE CHANGE is not just a mystery. It is a psychological study of
the impact of the buried past upon the present. Phil is hired by
the cops to be a consultant when they think that a serial killer
who has been inactive for 20 years may have returned. He was in
charge of the initial investigation and never caught the
The killer was nicknamed Spare Change due to his tendency to leave
three coins beside his victims for unknown reasons. His only other
characteristic was a tendency to taunt Phil by sending him notes,
as the real-life Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz, did with
newspaper reporter Jimmy Breslin.
Now bodies with coins next to them begin appearing again in Boston
parks and pathways. Phil Randall hires his daughter, Sunny, to work
with him on the case.
Sunny is delighted to be working with the man she calls
“Daddy.” She has competed all her life with, in her
words, her “unpleasant mother” and “annoying
sister” for her father’s attention. The pathology of
the Randall family runs a little deeper than that. In fact, the
mother is an out-of-control drunk and the sister a pretentious fool
who uses men to get her father’s attention. And it has taken
a toll on Sunny.
Sunny has problems of her own. Parker did the unique trick of
putting both his non-Spenser protagonists in each other’s
books last year. But not this time. Sunny’s love affair with
Jesse Stone has hit the rocks, and her ex-husband Ritchie, who she
has always loved, is ready to give up his current wife and try
again with Sunny. Sunny desperately wants that, but she can’t
be married again or even live with anybody and doesn’t know
why. So she goes to Spenser’s love, Doctor Susan Silverman,
for psychological help twice a week.
When the Boston police decide to trample upon the Constitution of
the United States by detaining and questioning everybody in the
vicinity of the killer’s most recent victim, and Sunny then
decides to stretch the legal code by doing a little breaking and
entering, a suspect quickly emerges.
Sure enough, the killer starts sending Sunny notes. And Sunny, much
to her father’s chagrin, decides to use herself as sexual
bait to catch the killer or, as she says, to engage in a little
“playing” with him. The cat-and-mouse game quickly
turns deadly as the victims begin to resemble Sunny.
Parker has always been great at creating memorable supporting
characters, such as the incredible Hawk, sidekick of Spenser. In
this series, we look forward to the appearance of Sunny’s
pal, Spike. Spike is a 265-pound “grizzly bear” of a
gay restaurant owner.
Parker writes, “Spike was wearing a black do-rag, a black
tank top, and little wire-framed oval shaped sunglasses. He looked
like a deranged biker.”
Spike perfectly captures Sunny’s motivation when he breaks
down the case for her: “It’s been you father’s
albatross for twenty years…You’re going to be the best
daughter in the world. You’re going to solve it for
And so she goes about trying to solve the case, danger be damned.
The great crime writer James Ellroy said years ago that mystery
writers rely too much on serial killer villains. Indeed, it has
become a cliché of the genre. If there were as many real-life
serial killers out there as there are in popular fiction,
we’d really be living in an Age of Terror.
But SPARE CHANGE is the furthest thing from a cliché. Yes,
there is a serial killer villain at work here. But Parker makes
possibly the most unique twist on the old plot devise.
This book is more than a mystery; it is about the buried rivers of
the past that run silent and generally dormant beneath the calm
surface of our lives for decades. It is about the legacy that
parents leave their children, the often destructive fruits of that
legacy and the struggle to get free of them.
And as with any Robert B. Parker book, the writing is simple and
powerful and perfect. No writer working today conveys as much
information in as few words as Parker. Lawyers fresh out of school
“smelled of diploma ink.” Or consider, “The
overcast outside had spread into my apartment.” Or, alcohol
“reiterated our humanness.” Finally, a PhD college
professor can know several languages and all sorts of theory but
have a “brain the size of a Rice Krispie.”
You don’t have to be a fan of mysteries to be a fan of Robert
B. Parker. Those of us who love books are lucky that he has three
such enjoyable series going at the same time. May we be so lucky
for years to come. SPARE CHANGE is the perfect book to pack this
summer for that trip to the beach or long vacation. You will not be
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 23, 2011