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, as well as his first Sunny Randall mystery, Family Honor, and his second Jesse Stone novel, Trouble in Paradise.
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.
The bloodlines of Sunny Randall, the heroine of 1999’s Family Honor, are clear from the get-go. On the surface, she seems like little more than Spenser in a skirt. Both became private detectives after clashing with the Boston PD brass; both adore the arts (Sunny’s studying for a master’s in painting) and their dogs (Spenser’s is Pearl, Sunny’s is Rosie). Yet as Sunny investigates the disappearance of a banker’s daughter, Parker slowly sets her apart. Unlike the gourmet Spenser, Sunny can’t cook a lick. She’s equally sharp-eyed but makes observations that would never occur to Spenser, assessing a headmistress thusly: ”She was wearing one of those hideous print prairie dresses that are equally attractive on girls, women, and cattle.” Plus, Sunny struggles with such uniquely feminist issues as: Is it sexist to expect your Mobbed-up ex-husband to help when caught in a turf war between Irish and Italian gangsters?
Parker wrote Family Honor for Helen Hunt, who plans to play Sunny in a film franchise, and he’s given her a gay pal, a cross between Greg Kinnear in As Good as It Gets and Hawk. Spike is an intimidating figure, and his cutting quips are just as lethal as his karate chops (”Nobody’s wearing smoking jackets anymore,” he informs a fashion-victim thug). When Sunny shelters the runaway, the narrative veers too close to the NBC weep-athon Providence. Overall, however, Parker puts a welcome distaff spin on his trademark mix of urban grit and urbane wit. Clearly, David E. Kelley isn’t the only guy who’s in touch with his feminine side.
Jesse Stone, the small-town police chief of 1998’s Trouble in Paradise, may be Parker’s most complex creation. Introduced a year earlier in Night Passage, Stone might look solid, but he’s crumbling inside. Equally dependent on alcohol and his unfaithful ex-wife, he left the LAPD for a job in the coastal hamlet of Paradise, Mass. At 35, Stone is younger and less settled than Spenser (who’s long been in a monogamous relationship with shrink Susan Silverman), and his flaws make him more fascinating. Trouble begins when thrill junkie James Macklin plots ”the mother of all stickups” on neighboring Stiles Island, a hideaway for the superrich. Because Stone’s stories aren’t first-person (like Spenser’s and Sunny’s), Parker can create tension by crosscutting between the cops and the crooks — a vividly drawn crew that also includes Macklin’s devoted moll, Faye Valentine, and Apache enforcer Wilson ”Crow” Cromartie.
Parker’s novels all take place in the same fictional universe, with common characters like attorney Rita Fiore and crime lord Tony Marcus. Perhaps he should bring his three leads together in one book; Jesse and Sunny could finally make each other forget their respective ex-spouses. If Ally McBeal can cross over to The Practice, why not? Hugger Mugger: B+ Family Honor: B+ Trouble in Paradise: A-