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Book Review

Another round with Boston's toughest P.I.

Robert Parker lets his characters age and evolve in his latest Spenser novel. Robert Parker lets his characters age and evolve in his latest Spenser novel. (Chitose Suzuki/AP/file 2006)

In "Now and Then," Robert Parker's 35th Spenser novel, the tough-talking, strong-armed, quick-witted, well-read private eye confronts a suave, smarmy Lothario of a college teacher engaged in some 1960s-style radicalism. Perry Alderson is too retro and too vague in his actions to warrant much attention from a post-9/11 FBI. Then his lover and his lover's husband, the cuckolded spouse who engaged Spenser in the first place, turn up dead.

This is vintage Parker, filled with banter and repartee, swagger and rule-skirting. Some three decades after Parker introduced Spenser to readers, there's little left to surprise us. Opening the book is like settling into an evening with an old, if somewhat slowed, friend. The description isn't quite as snappy as it once was, and neither is the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. Yet it's comforting to catch up with the old friend and see what the rascal's up to.

Hawk is here, and so, of course, is Susan. Even though Susan is still gorgeous and Spenser still packs a mean punch and the sex is still great - and frequent - Parker lets his characters age. The straying wife whose posterior warrants a second look from Spenser is old enough to carry an AARP card. And, with the case serving as a proxy for unresolved issues between Spenser and Susan, the relationship between them continues to evolve.

The dialogue, as usual, is spare, and in the back and forth between Spenser the detective and Susan the shrink, Parker provides his usual Greek chorus on the unfolding action. At times, however, their conversations are so predictable as to border on grating. We know that Susan went to Harvard and that Spenser is smart enough to interest this very smart lady. We know that classy and intellectual as she is, she still really gets off on her guy's machismo as much as his tenderheartedness. Usually, just as Parker verges on making these points one or two or three times too many, he switches scenes and lets the plot progress. Or else he drops a gem that succinctly captures their long romance.

Hawk remains the loyal friend of few words, at least as fierce as he looks and considerably more astute than the monosyllabic ghetto-speak that Parker has made his trademark. Add a few thuglike associates and Spenser's entourage is ready to roll.

Spenser's contact in law enforcement this time around is Epstein, special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office. He's more good guy than hapless fed, and he doth not protest too much when Spenser hoards information or plays loose with the rules.

Written at a time when talk of revolution revolves around jihad and Islamic extremists, Alderson's rants against capitalism and conformity harken back to the era when Parker began writing the Spenser books. Dated as Alderson's politics make the book seem, they are secondary to the unfolding murder mystery and the connections made between the case and Spenser's relationship with Susan.

Whatever its weaknesses, "Now and Then," like its predecessors, is an entertaining read, a page-turner easily consumed in a quiet evening at home.

Irene Sege is a member of the Globe staff.

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