Reviewed: November 5, 2004
By: Robert B. Parker
320 pages, $9.99
It's not that Robert Parker has grown tired of Spenser. That's a familiar coat that he says he intends to wear until he stops writing. It's more that Spenser is an easy fit for him and one a year is about his average, which meant that he had a lot of time on his hands and he likes to keep busy.
A few years back he started a second series about Jesse Stone, a policeman who lives not terribly far from Spenser's stomping grounds, but in a smaller city where the problems are different. Stone is different too. He's not a happy man, a loner who has a drinking problem and a troubled relationship with his ex-wife which tends to get in the way of any happier associations he might make.
That was new territory for Parker, whose Spenser is a well adjusted, fairly content man who has his vices well in hand and also has the benefit of a very happy long term relationship with a female companion. The books in the Stone series have also been narrated in the third person rather than the familiar first person viewpoint of the traditional gumshoe.
With his calendar not yet filled up, Parker decided to take on something else, something really different. So was born private eye Sunny Randall, another Bostonian. The difference is that Sunny's a woman. If you want to imagine what she looks like, imagine Helen Hunt, since the character was originally created with her in mind as a potential movie project.
She was a cop, born of a police family, but she married a son of the mob. Never mind that Richie is legit and refuses to have anything to do with his family business, the dichotomy between their upbringings and roots finally eroded the marriage after nine years. The pain of that is that they still love each other. We get all that in a prologue before Sunny speaks to us in her own voice.
She's not exactly a female Spenser. For one thing, she can't cook worth beans. Also, she's a painter. For another thing, she has problems finding good places to carry her gun. After a dissertation on why various places and types of holsters don't work well for women, we get this:
“My sister Elizabeth suggested I had plenty of room to carry the gun in my bra. I have never much liked Elizabeth.”
See, that is just NOT Spenser.
In other ways, though, he could be her older brother.
Sunny gets hired by a wealthy family to find their daughter, who has run away many times, but this time hasn't come back. Millicent, it turns out, has become a teen hooker, and rescuing her from her pimp earns Sunny the wrath of that man and the people he works for. Sunny and her pet miniature bull terrier, Rosie, find themselves the targets of mob related violence.
On top of this, she also finds herself the unofficial guardian of an unstable teen who refuses to return to her family - for reasons that become all too obvious as the plot unreels.
Rich people who are just no damn good are a Parker stock in trade, but the Pattons are a real prize. Sunny finds herself patronized, tested, hit on and lied to in pretty much equal measure as the story continues.
(Spenser fans may recognize some of the window dressing from Early Autumn, a 1981 novel in which Spenser acquires his own ward while on a case. Don't worry. This is a different story.)
The rest of Sunny's cast of chums includes her ex, to whom she finds she must turn for help, and her good friend, Spike, a flamboyant gay man who is every bit as dangerous as his name suggests he might be. There are also some crossover gangsters from Spenser's world who are as curious as everyone else seems to be about this slender 34 year old woman who wants to work the mean streets.
This is not to say that Parker is breaking new ground here. There are lots of female private eyes around these days, from Kinsey Millhone in California to V.I. Warshawski in Chicago, and even Anita Blake in an alternate America where vampires are legal citizens.
But this is a Parker project, so it means that the heroine has a code to live by and is struggling to find just how she fits in the world while trying to do the right thing. This latter activity often turns out to be a different thing than solving the case, even though both may be involved.
I enjoyed this book and Sunny Randall, and I fully intend to find out more about her. I'm apparently three books behind now. That's not a bad thing.