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A Walk To Remember?

  Widow's Walk
Robert B. Parker
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002
Rating: 3.7

Posted: April 2, 2002

By The Gentleman

The years haven't been uniformly kind to Boston-based mystery writer Robert B. Parker or his fictional alter-ego, the mono-monikered super-sleuth Spenser. Perhaps it's the strain of an increased schedule -- in the last few years Parker's output has increased exponentially, as he juggles three different series and the occasional stand-alone novel -- or the advance of years. Nonetheless, one of the deans of American crime fiction hasn't been performing at peak capacity in the last few years. While his new series featuring female P.I. Sunny Randall (conceived as a vehicle for films starring Helen Hunt, believe it or not) still glistens with freshness, the adventures of Spenser -- Parker's bread and butter -- have taken a downward dive of late.

But with Widow's Walk, his 28th Spenser novel, Parker seems to be returning to form. While not a high-octane ride along the lines of more recent works like Small Vices or Thin Air, Walk is a decided step up from the perfectly workmanlike rote of Parker's last few books.

The set-up, as is often the case, is the stuff of boilerplate detective paperbacks: Nathan Smith, a prominent Boston banker, is found shot to death in his own bed, and his apparently ditzy trophy wife, Mary, is the key suspect. Enter Spenser, who's hired by his longtime friend Rita Fiore, currently a high-priced defense lawyer with a ritzy firm, to establish whether Mary's claims of innocence have any merit.

It'd be ungentlemanly to give away too much regarding the plot, but suffice it to say that Parker manages to craft a serpentine tangle of set-ups and murders, doling out clues as if they were oxygen tanks on the moon and creating doubts and questions at every turn. In the process, Spenser (and, of course, his colleague Hawk) gets involved with murderous mob thugs, powerful businessmen, a father-daughter team of defense attorneys, and a plot involving sex, sales fraud and sheer stupidity.

It seems a bit obvious to say that it's to Parker's credit that each new piece of this puzzle builds intrigue. But more often than not, lately, Parker's mystery works -- particularly those involving Spenser -- have been alarmingly pedestrian. Perish Twice, the recent second installment in his new Sunny Randall series, chugged along on characterization more than plot (much the way Spenser books did back in the day), and the last Jesse Stone outing, Death in Paradise, was a maddening snooze-fest. But here, Parker builds a head of steam not seen since Small Vices or the mid-late Spenser heyday of Walking Shadow, Paper Doll and Pastime.

Certainly, there's a lot about Widow's Walk that grates: Spenser himself comes across as all-too invincible, robbing the proceedings of any real sense of risk or mortal stakes. His friendship with Hawk, a smooth-as-glass hired killer, remains as implausible as ever. And Parker's continual treatment of women characters as contemptuous buffoons (Mary Smith) or shameless, sex-starved kittens (Rita Fiore, one step away from a sexual harassment suit) is increasingly hard to take, bordering as it does on (at best) chauvinism or (at worst) outright sexism. And the less said about Spenser's "better half," Susan Silverman, the better.

But if Spenser himself fails to excite the reader as he once did, Parker's knack for crafting engaging page-turners adequately compensates here. It's not the Boston Marathon by any stretch, but Widow's Walk is a definite step in the right direction.

Related Links:

Robert B. Parker: Death in Paradise

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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