Style is strength in final Spenser story

Robert B. Parker Robert B. Parker
By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / October 21, 2010

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With the death in January of Robert B. Parker, a chapter of Boston literary history was closed. And while the first posthumously published Parker book (“Blue-Eyed Devil’’) was a fine Western, it is fitting that his iconic PI, Spenser, should appear for a final fast and fun outing as well.

Since 1973’s “Godwulf Manuscript,’’ Spenser has been a Boston original. A hard-boiled guy in a college town, he can shoot and throw (and take) a punch, and is usually as well read as the more effete academics he often encounters. In “Painted Ladies,’’ he holds true to type. Hired to help retrieve a stolen painting, our gruff protagonist is soon faced with double murders and multiple attempts on his own life. Along the way, he interacts with other tough guy cops and ex-cops and spars with mostly ineffectual intellectuals (whose number does not include his longtime love Susan, whose PhD is frequently invoked).

To figure out who is doing the killing and why, Spenser resorts to his usual basic, but effective technique: “I look into something and I get a name and I look into the name and it leads to another name,’’ he explains. And because he is Spenser and does not take no for an answer, such legwork and persistence lead to a fairly believable chain of events, in which the muscular PI manages to uncover an international criminal ring involving Holocaust survivors, art theft, and forgery. In classic Parker style, even this convoluted plot is laid out simply, and if the conclusion is never really in doubt, the action speeds along at an enjoyable clip.

Despite being such an apparently straightforward writer, Parker was a true stylist. His strength was in his spareness, and “Painted Ladies’’ shows him in fine form. The opening chapter, for example, gives us two complete character portraits almost entirely through dialogue. A new client, a Dr. Ashton Prince, rarely uses contractions and never misses an opportunity to use polysyllabic words (“I am confronted with a matter of extreme sensitivity’’). That tells us something about him — and his snobbery is confirmed when he’s surprised at Spenser’s familiarity with the work of a 17th-century Dutch artist. Later on, Spenser will speak of Prince, saying, “he never used a short word when a long one would do nearly as well,’’ but Parker had already showed us this.

For all of his direct noir style, Parker himself is not above literary allusions. He gives us Yeats’s “widening gyres’’ and Winston Churchill on whiskey, as well as a dozen other literary and historical touchstones. In all fairness, the author throws out these gems lightly, and they are in keeping with Spenser’s unexpectedly literate character.

In fact, in this fast blast of a book, Parker only stumbles twice. The first time is when he makes a bereaved poet too much of a caricature, so that when she reveals a vital clue it feels mechanical. She’s a plot device rather than a person.

The second is in the conclusion. Although the story ties up cleanly, the workings of the resolution feel artificial. A shooting is passed off as the work of another. It’s neat, and it benefits the victims, but it makes an awful lot of assumptions about Spenser’s pull with the police.

Spenser may never have been the most plausible of heroes, but usually Parker kept us from seeing the machinery at work. Of course, the unlikely ending means that justice can be served. Maybe for Parker, as for his legacy creation — Spenser, the PI who served no master — that was all that mattered.

Clea Simon’s latest mystery is “Grey Matters’’ (Severn House). She can be reached at


By Robert B. Parker

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 291 pp., $26.95