I haven't read Robert B. Parker regularly for years but occasionally I'll look back down the list for a book I haven't picked up. The other day I bought a copy of Paper Doll (1993) and I'm glad I did. This is Parker at his best.
Boston swell Loudon Tripp hires Spenser because the police haven't found the murderer of his wife. Tripp is obsessed with the woman, painting for Parker a portrait of a beautiful, elegant woman whose good works and kindness would have made the saints envious.
The action jumps back and forth from Boston to South Carolina as Spenser begins to paint his own portrait of the woman, one very different from Tripp's. The plot reminds me of a few of Hammett's Continental Op mysteries about wealthy families--lies upon lies, delusions upon delusions, false starts and dead ends that Spenser must somehow turn into truth. The South Carolina chapters are especially fine. Parker gives us a small Southern town that skirts the usual cliches because of a compelling relationship between an old black man and the old white man he works for. Neither is a fool and they are a long way from saints.
Susan isn't around much, Hawk even less. This is mostly Spenser working with a bulldog Boston detective named Quirk and a younger Boston cop whose lover is dying of AIDs. There is a long fight scene that is a small masterpiece. If I taught a writing class I'd use a few of the South Carolina chapters to show students what a scene should do, ebb and flow and then pay-off.
A book filled with real menace and real sadness. When Parker's on he's got few peers.
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I thought Mr. Parker had a good run in the 1990s and besides PAPER DOLL there's SMALL VICES and NIGHT PASSAGE.
The last Parker novel I read, and completed, was NIGHT PASSAGE. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I can't remember the last Spenser novel I read that I actually enjoyed. I really have fond memories of all the 1980s Spenser novels, but it seems like somewhere in the the early-1990s he loaded them with too much Susan Silverman and not nearly enough story.
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