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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Painted Ladies’

- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2010

PAINTED LADIES
By Robert B. Parker
Putnam, $26.95, 291 pages

It was a huge loss to the world of fiction when Robert Parker died in January at 77. His more than 50 crime novels, and the odd Western, sold tens of millions of copies, making Parker one of the most popular novelists of the past 40 years.

Happily for readers, Parker left four completed manuscripts behind, two of them featuring his most popular creation, the tough but literate and funny Boston PI, Spenser (no first name is ever given). "Painted Ladies" is Parker and Spenser in top form, and readers can look forward to "Sixkill," the final Spenser of 40 episodes, to be published in May.

It's not difficult to see why Spenser has charmed millions of readers since he burst onto the mystery scene in 1973 in "The Godwulf Manuscript." In stark contrast to his literary PI antecedents, noir characters like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Dashiel Hammett's Sam Spade and Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer, Spenser is lively, cheerful and funny as well as tough and smart. Those previous writers and characters represent the noir, or "hard-boiled" school of detective fiction. Spenser is more over-easy than hard-boiled.

Like these other guys, Spenser goes down some pretty mean streets. He can beat up or shoot it out with the bad guys. But he's no cynic. He has no illusions about the world he lives in, but he doesn't burden readers with the world-weariness and angst that so often mars the work of these other fine writers. Spenser is street-smart and deals with the darkness of the world without letting that darkness overpower him. He knows how to have a good time.

And readers have a good time tagging along with Spenser. Unlike with most hip PIs and cops in crime novels, Spenser's wisecracks are actually funny. It takes a truly gloomy soul to read a Spenser novel without laughing.

All the things that have made Spenser the uber-literary PI are present in "Painted." There's a tight story in lean, insistent, first-person prose and sharp dialogue. The fine ensemble cast of recurring characters is here - Boston PD Captain Martin Quirk, Sgt. Frank Belson, leggy attorney Rita Fiore, state police Captain Healy and of course, Spenser's main squeeze, Dr. Susan Silverman, and the dog they co-own, Pearl II. The only exception is Spenser's charming but thuggish companion Hawk, who is on some murky mission elsewhere for this one and not available to catch Spenser's back as he does in most of the Spenser stories.

Matters get under way in "Painted" when professor and art scholar Dr. Ashton Prince hires Spenser to provide protection for him during an exchange of cash for a kidnapped painting being held for ransom. During the swap, while Spenser remains in the car per the painting-napper's instructions, Prince and painting are blown up by a well-constructed bomb.

Considering the ground rules of the exchange, there was little Spenser could have done to avoid Prince's and the painting's undoing. But the knight-errant Spenser, with his own chivalric code, isn't about to let this pass. Beside the moral calculus, it's bad for business if people think they can just blow a guy's clients up.

So Spenser starts looking into Prince, the painting, the museum that owned it, the insurance company that insured the painting and the university Prince worked for. Spenser is puzzled about why he is being stonewalled at every one of these stops. He's even more focused when some obviously very professional hit guys try to kill him, under circumstances that make it clear that Spenser's investigation of the painting is the sore spot.

On the way to unraveling this one, Spenser discovers that the Prince is both more and less than he presented himself to be. In this perilous journey through a well-constructed plot (not always Parker's strongest suit), readers will learn a little about Danish art and encounter the world of Holocaust survivors, art theft, art forgery and, as is frequently the case in Spenser novels, the comprehensive shallowness and pomposity of academe.

The plot in "Painted" is aided by a couple of unlikely coincidences, and some nitpickers might consider the ending too pat. But Parker's millions of fans don't read Spenser novels to find out who done it. They read them in order to spend a few fast-paced hours in the delightful world of Spenser and friends. "Painted Ladies" won't disappoint in this regard.

Since Parker's success of the 1970s and '80s, he has had many imitators, but no equal as yet. It's common to run across Spenser-like lines and touches in the work of others. Harlan Coben, a very successful crime writer himself, estimates that 90 percent of contemporary crime writers, if pressed, would admit that Parker has been a major influence on their work, and "the rest of us lie about it."

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.

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