Another outing for wisecracking Spenser

2009-01-21 00:00

For fans of the American detective thriller, Raymond Chandler is the benchmark. Every entry gets measured against his Philip Marlowe stories with their combination of wisecracking dialogue, vivid descriptive writing, convoluted plot and world-weary hero. After Chandler, who else? Ross MacDonald kept the pot boiling for a couple of decades with his Lew Archer stories and then one night I found myself reading The Godwulf Manuscript, the first Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker, straight through to the end. This was the best thing since Chandler.

Over 30 years later we have Rough Weather, the 36th entry in what the New York Times Review has described as “one of the great series in the history of the American detective story”. That was probably back before Parker got into the teens. These days I’m not so sure. While the writing is as crisp as ever, the series has become formulaic and the hallmark banter between Spenser, his partner Susan Silverman and his cohort Hawk is dangerously close to tiresome. Plus, Spenser has stopped detecting. He simply makes a nuisance of himself until the bad guys come out the woodwork.

In Rough Weather, Spenser is hired to provide muscular arm-candy to a rich woman at her daughter’s wedding. The bride gets kidnapped at the altar and the body count hits seven. All this at the hands of Rugar, Spenser’s near-nemesis from a couple of other books. So we know who but not why. The why will be obvious to most readers about halfway through proceedings.

So Parker looks to be on cruise control and Spenser is treading water, but for fans he’s a familiar presence and familiarity can breed comfort as well as contempt. For old time’s sake, I’ll go for the comfort.

Stephen Coan

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