For fans of the mystery novel, it is always good news when Robert
B. Parker publishes a Spenser novel. And this year has seen the
release of two new books.
SCHOOL DAYS is the 33rd entry in the series that now stretches back
over three decades. And Boston's tough but sensitive PI with no
known first name is still cracking wise and quoting poetry, as he
stands up for the underdog and seeks out truth and justice for a
Some longtime fans of the series will immediately and unfairly
write off SCHOOL DAYS for two big reasons. This is a Spenser book
without his faithful yet brutal sidekick, Hawk. And it contains
only long-distance cameo appearances by Spenser's longtime love and
psychiatrist girlfriend, Susan. But Pearl, their German shorthair
pointer, does play a vital role in the case.
Critics will say that a Spenser book without Hawk and Susan would
be like "The Honeymooners" with only Jackie Gleason --- still good
but somehow incomplete. But this criticism is totally wrong when it
comes to SCHOOL DAYS. For one thing, the novel from earlier this
year, COLD SERVICE, was a Hawk book, dealing with his being
critically wounded by assassins. And that book also had plenty of
Susan, as she tried to help Spenser work through issues such as
death and vulnerability.
SCHOOL DAYS is nowhere near as heavy or violent. It is a
straightforward detective story, which allows Spenser to do what he
does best: dig into areas where everybody wishes he would stay out
of. The case starts when two affluent teenagers launch a
Columbine-like attack on their exclusive private school, killing
five students, an assistant dean and a Spanish teacher, while
wounding eight others. The wealthy grandmother of one of the
students, who is convinced of his innocence, hires Spenser.
However, the case is open and shut. Both boys confessed to the
crime. As Spenser begins to dig, he also quickly sees that they
probably committed the massacre. But the problem comes in the
reaction of virtually everyone he talks to. "Everybody wants this
to go away," he says. Afraid for their reputations, the school
president and chief of police not so gently order Spenser to stop
digging. But even the parents of the boys and the boys themselves
seem uninterested in mounting any sort of defense.
A weaker detective would simply walk away and take his fee with
him. But as longtime readers of the series know, Spenser is not a
man to be bullied away from anything. So even if his client's
grandson did it, Spenser decides to start picking at loose
Where did two rich kids with no guns in their homes come up with
four automatic weapons? And how did kids with no firearm experience
manage to hit 21 out of 37 shots? And the biggest string of all:
why did they do it?
Spenser keeps digging, even after he is threatened, shot at and
ultimately fired from the case. His quest for the truth takes him
from the boredom and alienation of affluent suburban kids to inner
city gangbangers to the dark secrets that people in positions of
power will do anything to keep hidden.
Robert B. Parker is a master craftsman. SCHOOL DAYS shows once
again Parker at the height of his powers. And while this book might
not have Hawk, Susan or the big shoot 'em up finale of our heroes
taking down yet another criminal syndicate, it ranks as one of
Parker's best Spenser books.
Parker handles the explosiveness of the Columbine-type story with
sensitivity and insight; he does not go for the cheap, 60-second
sound bite explanations that might be given by the pundits on the
24-hour news channels. SCHOOL DAYS takes a twist that the reader
does not see coming --- but when it comes, it makes perfect if
Like all of Parker's books, it is almost underwritten, a monument
to simplicity. Concise hard-hitting dialogue that reads the way
people talk. Exact descriptions that never get in the way of the
story. And short, almost cinematic chapters that propel the reader
along and effortlessly build suspense. With each book, Parker gives
writers lessons on how to write the mystery.
But the ultimate success of SCHOOL DAYS comes from the fact that it
is a different, more complex and ultimately much darker Spenser
novel. For sometimes, even for the greatest detective in fictional
Boston, it is too late to bring complete justice and the truth will
not set anybody free. All you can settle for then, as Spenser says,
is "an easier room in hell." And that is a terrifying
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 23, 2011