Now and Then, by Robert B. Parker

January 13, 2008 at 11:27 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

nowthen.jpg parker.jpg Every once in a while I need a Robert B. Parker mystery. More specifically, I need Spenser.

Parker is currently fielding three series: in addition to the one featuring Spenser, Susan, and the gang, there are the Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone novels. I’ve read one or two of each of these, and I enjoyed them – but my money is still on Spenser.

Parker also writes a standalone from time to time. The guy is incredibly prolific. A spreadsheet would be handy for keeping track of this frenetic outpouring. Actually, all you need is the ever-reliable Stop! You’re Killing Me! Here’s a direct link to the site’s Parker entry, to give you some idea what we’re dealing with here. By my count, Now & Then is the 35th Spenser novel. As Spenser himself might say: “Yikes!”

The case gets off to an almost prosaic start: one Dennis Doherty hires Spenser to find out if his wife is having an affair. She is – that’s almost a foregone conclusion – but this turns out to be the least of Doherty’s problems. The wife’s lover, Perry Alderson, is a man with many secrets, most of them dangerous. Violence seems to coalesce around him. Spenser determines to run Alderson to ground, despite losing his own client in the process.

Now, this business of not having a paying client is a problem I’ve run into in numerous novels featuring a private investigator. Sometimes the author creates another revenue stream for the protagonist; on other occasions, there is literally no explanation offered as to who is funding the investigation. And in this case, Spenser recruits several other people to assist in the proceedings. There are the usual suspects, Hawk and Vinnie, and additionally, someone from his California contingent: Chollo. Chollo provides welcome comic relief. He likes to play the peasant, referring frequently to the way things are done “in my village,” when, as Spenser and Hawk are at pains to remind him, he actually lives in Bel Air!

At any rate, Spenser is not only determined to run Alderson to ground, he also has to insure Susan’s safety. Epstein, an FBI agent, is also working with Spenser on this case (and getting paid by the Agency to do so, mirabile dictu!). He’s the one who correctly identifies Susan as the breach in Spenser’s wall. Spenser and Epstein have one of my favorite dialog exchanges in the book. Spenser has gone to meet Epstein at the wonderfully named Zaftig’s, a delicatessen in Brookline. (For those of you who are not conversant with Yiddish, “zaftig” means full-figured – what the ISO ads call “Rubenesque.”)

I met Epstein for breakfast at Zaftig’s in Brookline.

“There’s nothing closer?” I said as I sat down.

“Am I Jewish?” Epstein said.

“I think so,” I said.

“And I like a nice deli,” he said.

“My honey is Jewish and she lives in Cambridge,” I said.

“Sometimes they stray,” Epstein said.

“On the other hand, she’s a shrink,” I said.

“But they never stray far,” he said.

The above quoted is a good example of Parker’s extremely spare style. There’s plenty of empty real estate on the page. Now & Then clocks in at just under 300 pages, but you could knock it off in a matter of hours. And you’ll have plenty of laughs – or at least, smiles – along the way. Say what you will, Parker is still master of the whipcrack riposte.

Every once in a while our hero is permitted a rueful rumination, like this one:

“It was dark out, and when I looked out the window all I could see was my own reflection. I didn’t look old, exactly, maybe a little weathered, sort of. Like a guy who’d seen too many bodies. Heard too many lies. Fired too many shots. Swapped too many punches.”

Homage to Chandler, perhaps? Not too surprising from a man whose doctoral dissertation “… traced the classic hero from the Western frontier to the urban landscapes of Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald.” (quote from Mystery Ink. Parker received his PhD from Boston University in 1971.)

But then, there’s Susan. She enters the picture, and things get dangerously gloppy. Or, close to gloppy. She and Spenser trade quips like crazy, but the leering innuendo can irritate. Supposedly they’ve kept their relationship juicy by not living together. But aren’t they both a little long in the tooth for all this clinging rapture?

Still, she’s a terrific person, this Harvard-educated psychotherapist so adored by the gumshoe. And I love the snappy dialog and the Boston area setting, so vividly evoked, and the loopy, affectionate dog Pearl, whose custody Spenser and Susan share. And there are the occasional flights of eloquence, like this one, brought on by Spenser’s temporary work-related separation from Susan:

“Again the interactive quiet stretching nearly seven hundred miles across the dark fields of the republic. The fields were now probably darker and fewer that the ones Fitzgerald imagined, but I liked the phrase.”

You and me both, Spenser…

parker200.jpg [Robert B. Parker and the real-life Pearl. She’s actually Pearl II; the comely German shorthaired pointer is herself part of a series!]

2 Comments

  1. Jesse Stone, in print and on film: Stranger in Paradise, Night Passage, and Stone Cold « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] This element is an unfortunate feature in a series that is otherwise pretty entertaining. I still would not rate these books quite as highly as I do the Spenser novels. Here was I, wondering how much patience I had left for the perennial canoodling of Spenser and Susan Silverman, but theirs is such a sunny love affair compared to the ostentatious dreariness of the Jenn-and-Jesse thing that I developed a whole new appreciation for this hip, urban couple, with their lively repartee and juicy sex lives. (See my review of Now & Then.) […]

  2. To Darkness and To Death, by Julia Spencer-Fleming: a book group discussion « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] and Ann agreed that this is what happened to Sue Henry’s Jessie Arnold series. How about Robert B. Parker’s perennial lovers, Spenser and Susan Silverman? Aren’t they a bit long in the tooth for all that canoodling?  Maybe, but Parker’s […]

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