- Click here to read Joe Hartlaub's review.
The literary world and mystery lovers in particular suffered an irreplaceable loss on January 18, 2010 when the dean of American crime fiction, Robert B. Parker, died at his desk at the age of 77. Appropriately enough, he was writing a book at the time.
SILENT NIGHT was that book, which is now being published after being finished by Parker’s longtime agent and the literary executor for his estate, Helen Brann. This is a holiday treat that reminds us once again of why we loved both the Spenser series and the work of Parker. It has the feel of the last real Spenser book.
Now, as we all know, Spenser has outlived his creator in that the author’s estate chose to keep the series alive under the able pen of Ace Atkins for Spenser and other writers for the Jesse Stone and Virgil Cole series. No matter what you think of those efforts, you will love SILENT NIGHT, which grew out of a conversation soon after Parker’s death between Brann and Parker’s wife, Joan, about the fate of that last unfinished book. Brann concluded that she would like to take a shot at finishing it, and Joan encouraged her to do it.
The result is pure Spenser. Spenser is on a case helping both a homeless boy and a former female tennis star. Both of them are in danger. And he is risking death not for money, but because it is the right thing to do. Spenser is the knight errant of the modern age. And he is his usual smart aleck self. The story is set in Boston right before Christmas. As with almost all the stories, it begins with Spenser in his office. Parker and Brann write as Spenser: “I liked the myth elements of Christmas. The way in which its origins reach back far beyond Jesus, to the rituals of people unknown to us. The celebration of the winter solstice. The coming of light in the darkest time. And with it the promise of spring to come and beginning again. I liked it better than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
"Spenser fans will feel like they have been given one last gift this holiday season of being able to read the final book Parker ever worked on."
This book is a joy because it has all the Spenser elements we love. There is the woman he adores but never married: Susan, the beautiful Harvard-educated shrink. She will psychologically break down the case and players for him yet again. But most of all, there is Hawk. Hawk, as always, has Spenser’s back. He is deadly and represents the dark side that Spenser works in but never inhabits. He explains to Spenser the difference between them: “You got rules…Need a whole book for your rules. Have to think too much. Turns you soft sometimes. I try to live your way, I be dead long ago.”
If there was a criticism of the series in Parker’s final years, it came from fans who bemoaned the lack of Hawk. We were led to believe that Hawk was somewhere on the other side of the world, perhaps with the CIA, killing people for money during the war on terror. Fans would much rather have seen him trading banter with Spenser as they track down the bad guys. It is easier to think of our knights, even fictional ones, as good guys, not assassins.
The case Spenser is on in SILENT NIGHT is not the most complex plotted mystery you’ve ever read. It is actually almost paint-by-numbers simple. But that is not going to matter to longtime fans. Because there is Spenser, the thug who can quote Yates and cook something called “turkducken” --- a combination of turkey, duck and chicken --- for Christmas dinner.
And what some of us will always consider the actual end of the Spenser series comes in Susan’s home for that Christmas dinner, with everybody safe and together. The people Spenser and Hawk saved are outside playing in the snow. Hawk is staring out the window, contemplating a life spent alone, where he cannot be who he is and be responsible for another human being. Pearl, the wonder dog, is nearby. And Spenser and Susan are together in the bedroom. Spenser says at one point: “Well…another successful Spenser family Christmas.” Yes it was.
And that feels like the perfect coda for the series. Therein lies the beauty of SILENT NIGHT. This is the last unexpected perfect Christmas with your favorite fictional characters. Yes, we know it can’t last forever. But Spenser fans will feel like they have been given one last gift this holiday season of being able to read the final book Parker ever worked on.
In real life, the true ending for Spenser came with the death of a great writer, not on Christmas, but almost a month later. Joan Parker told Helen Brann that Parker would want her to try to finish his last book. And you can’t help but feel that he would be delighted with the results. This is a must-read for Spenser fans.
SILENT NIGHT was the book that Robert B. Parker was writing at the time of his death. The unfinished manuscript was completed by Helen Brann, Parker’s literary agent of several decades. It’s a bit shorter than his other Spenser novels, but it’s still a complete work and an interesting addition to the Spenser canon for the legion of fans who cannot get enough of Spenser and his creator.
Most of these stories begin with Spenser in his office, sitting behind his desk, when a potential client enters. SILENT NIGHT delays that scenario, but only until Chapter Two. The potential client in question is a boy of indeterminate age named Slide, a street urchin who is homeless and enlists Spenser’s help. He has found some guidance and mentoring through an organization called Street Business, which provides shelter and guidance to boys with no other alternatives and attempts to find them employment as well. The program operates a bit below the radar and is somewhat controversial.
"...a complete work and an interesting addition to the Spenser canon for the legion of fans who cannot get enough of Spenser and his creator."
Slide is concerned for Jackie Alvarez, who is running the program. Alvarez is being threatened by some toughs who seem to have no agenda other than closing the program down. Slide is worried about Alvarez’s physical well-being and for himself as well; if Street Business closes down, Slide will have nowhere to go. For Spenser, who has been quietly brooding about the holiday, Slide is a reminder of himself at the cusp of adolescence, when he fortunately had his uncles to rely upon and raise him. Spenser agrees to see what he can do on Slide’s behalf, bringing a somewhat reluctant Hawk into the mix in order to intimidate the people who have been harassing Alvarez.
What results, however, is that the attempted intimidation of Alvarez gets kicked up a notch or two, despite the best efforts of Spenser and Hawk. The pair begin an investigation into the motivation behind the efforts to shut Alvarez down, following a trail that takes them a bit outside of their familiar Boston environment to a somewhat unexpected destination. Hawk and Spenser both discover things about themselves, particularly Hawk, whose actions during the tumultuous climax result in a revelation with which he is not entirely comfortable.
I would not recommend SILENT NIGHT as an introduction to the Spenser series as it is a bit different from the body of Parker’s (and now Ace Atkins’s) contributions to the canon, in part due to the holiday theme. The dialogue is almost, but not quite, up to what we have become accustomed, though certainly there is plenty to enjoy here, particularly with respect to Hawk’s irreverent repartee that occasionally manifests itself throughout the story. That is not to say that the principals --- Spenser, Hawk, Susan and, of course, Pearl --- are not true to themselves; they certainly are. Longtime and even short-term fans of the series will want to read this holiday offering as a mid-year repast, and more, as they wait for Atkins’s next installment in the career of Parker's long-running and perennially popular character.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan and Joe Hartlaub on October 25, 2013