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Spenser gets back in touch with his inner tough guy

Readers of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, 32 novels long now, have seen their hero changed, filed down, rough edges smoothed by years of exposure to the sensitivity of his beloved, Susan Silverman.

But not all the rough edges are gone -- Susan did have her work cut out for her -- and the subject comes up in ''Cold Service," a throwback Spenser adventure that requires him to rediscover his inner tough guy.

Some readers rate the Spenser books according to the ratio of appearances by Susan and by the gumshoe's unrepentant sidekick Hawk, who operates comfortably in a grayer area of the law than Spenser. This is a Hawk book, and his revenge (''best served cold," hence the title) is the focus.

Hawk has agreed to protect a bookie whose business is threatened by a takeover by Ukrainian gangsters. We meet Hawk on the 22d floor of Mass. General, after he has been shot. The bookie, his wife, and two of his three kids have been shot and killed. Hawk is determined to set this situation right to the extent that it's possible; Spenser is determined to help him.

They soon discover that these Ukrainians are a nasty and ruthless crew. Before long the police, the feds, corrupt government officials, drug lords, and some familiar figures from past Spenser adventures in the Boston underworld are involved. There are some particularly slimy villains, and Spenser deploys his perpetually surprising range of knowledge to describe one of them: ''He looked like the cover of a romance novel. Shoulder-length blond hair, pale blue eyes, chiseled features, pouty lips, his flowered shirt unbuttoned halfway down his manly upper body."

More characteristically, Spenser reads Thomas Friedman's ''Longitudes and Attitudes," ponders the political correctness of ordering Indian pudding, whips up a batch of apple fritters, and once again thinks the Public Garden is plural (''Public Gardens"). Like the rest of us, he tires of television-manufactured hysteria about the weather: ''It was late winter. In late winter, it snowed in Boston. Sometimes it snowed in early spring. . . . I was starting to get used to it."

As the plot unfurls, the stage becomes as corpse-strewn as one in any blank-verse tragedy that Spenser probably knows by heart. Hawk too, who remarks, adapting Shakespeare:''Which be the justice? Which be the thief?"

And Spenser ponders the meaning of it all, and not just in conversations with Susan. ''We are all strange dudes," remarks a character who reappears from a former adventure in which he came as close to killing Spenser as anyone could. ''In what we do there are no rules. We have to make some up for ourselves."

This situation is as violent as any Spenser has encountered, and it requires making up new rules -- but according to old principles. ''Cold Service" unites the exciting action of some of the earlier Spenser books with the increasingly accurate moral compass of the more recent ones. This time out, Robert B. Parker has written a Spenser for all seasons.

Cold Service, By Robert B. Parker, Putnam, 320 pp., $24.95

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