Compared with Robert B. Parker, David E. Kelley looks like a slacker. The TV producer has two hit series (”Ally McBeal” and ”The Practice”) set in Massachusetts, but the mystery novelist has three hit series set in the same commonwealth. And while Kelley’s work is wildly uneven, Parker’s remains remarkably consistent, as evidenced by his 27th Spenser book, the just-published Hugger Mugger.
”Hugger Mugger”’s typically brisk plotline whisks the one-named PI (who’s been played on TV by Robert Urich and Joe Mantegna) away from his beloved Boston to untangle a string of racehorse shootings in Lamarr, Ga. This change of locale gives the tale a fresh feeling, as the Beantown epicure experiences Southern-culture shock (”I checked my arteries. Blood still seemed to be getting through, so I had another sausage biscuit”).
Parker allows the opportunity for deeper fish-out-of-water comedy to get away by not bringing Hawk — Spenser’s no-bull sidekick — down to horse country (he’s said to be in France with a good-looking Boston College professor). Yet Hawk’s absence leaves room for a flock of colorful new characters. Most are members of the stable-owning Clive family, an unstable clan that includes pedophile Cord and alcoholic Pud.
As always, Spenser traffics in crackling dialogue, highbrow literary references, and evocative physical descriptions (”Like all jockeys he was about the size of a ham sandwich, except for his hands, which appeared to be those of a stonemason”). Although the book makes a needless detour when Spenser takes on an unrelated nanny-stalking case, ”Hugger Mugger” finishes strong, just like a thoroughbred should.